Agreement in Sight for Ukraine's Grain Exports

A deal on safe passage would release millions of tonnes of grain for import-dependent nations in Africa and the Mideast.

Grain awaiting export at Odesa (Charles Michel)

Published Jul 13, 2022 1:29 PM by The Maritime Executive

After months of negotiations, Turkey's government believe that it is close to brokering a real agreement with the U.N., Ukraine and Russia on a process for shipping grain out of Ukrainian's blockaded seaports. 

If it reaches completion in a final meeting next week, and if the parties can hold to the terms, the deal would allow the release of up to 22 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain. For nearly five months, Russia has blockaded all Ukrainian ports, and its forces have attacked multiple merchant vessels near Ukraine's waters (including one ship struck twice). But with the clearance of Russian forces from Snake Island in late June, and the recent improvements to Ukraine's coastal defense batteries, Moscow's ability to exert control over the northwestern Black Sea has receded. 

Ukraine says that with the Russian presence reduced, it has been able to safely resume traffic on the Bystry Canal to access its Danube River ports - the first time since the start of the war that Ukrainian ports have had access to the sea. In a statement Wednesday, Deputy Infrastructure Minister Yuriy Vaskov said that 16 ships have passed through this channel in four days. (The claim could not be verified using AIS data, as there are no recent records of live AIS transmissions in the waterway.) Vaskov said that opening up more capacity on the Bystry and the adjacent Sulina Canal would allow Ukraine to export another 500,000 tonnes of grain per month. 

While this would be an improvement, it would still not be enough capacity to move 22 million tonnes before the fall harvest comes. There is no infrastructure that can fully substitute for the terminals in and around Odesa, according to Ukrainian officials.

Access to Odesa for neutral shipping will require Russian cooperation, and Turkey - acting as a mediator - believes that that cooperation may be coming as soon as next week. 

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar announced Wednesday that the UN, Russia and Ukraine have agreed on the outlines of a "technical" agreement on the operation of a shipping lane for grain. Ships will have to be inspected for any inbound armament cargoes, which are unacceptable for Russia; minehunting and mine clearance operations may be required in some waterways, a sensitive question for Ukraine; and security guarantees to limit Russia's attacks on port infrastructure and shipping will have to be negotiated. 

"An agreement has been reached on the establishment of a coordination center with representatives of all sides, joint controls for checking grains at harbors, and ensuring the safety of the vessels in the transit routes," Akar said. 

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the "important and substantive" talks a "ray of hope," but expressed caution about the outcome - especially since war still rages in Ukraine's east. 

"I’m encouraged. I’m optimistic, but it’s not yet fully done," Guterres told reporters. "More technical work will now be needed."