Russian and Ukrainian officials have signed a deal to allow grain exports from Ukrainian Black Sea ports, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the agreement would help ease a global food crisis.
The neighbouring, warring countries are among the world’s biggest exporters of food, but Russia’s invasion led to a de-facto blockade of the Black Sea, resulting in Ukraine’s exports dropping to a sixth of their pre-war level.
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu and Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, signed the deal separately on Friday, carefully avoiding sitting at the same table and avoiding shaking hands.
The signing ceremony took place at Istanbul’s lavish Dolmabahce Palace in the presence of Erdogan and Guterres.
“Today, there is a beacon on the Black Sea. A beacon of hope [and] possibility … and relief in a world that needs it more than ever,” Guterres said, calling on Russia and Ukraine to fully implement the accord.
Friday’s deal means around $10bn worth of grain will be available for sale with roughly 20 million tonnes of last year’s harvest that can now be exported, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.
The agreement is valid for 120 days and may be automatically renewed without further negotiations.
According to UN officials, under the agreement, a coalition of Turkish, Ukrainian and UN staff will monitor the loading of grain into vessels in Ukrainian ports before navigating a preplanned route through the Black Sea, which remains heavily mined by Ukrainian and Russian forces.
Ukrainian pilot vessels will guide commercial vessels transporting the grain in order to navigate the mined areas around the coastline using a map of safe channels provided by the Ukrainian side.
The vessels will then cross the Black Sea towards Turkey’s Bosphorus Strait while being closely monitored by a joint coordination centre in Istanbul, containing representatives from the UN, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey.
Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Istanbul, said another detail relates to the inspection of ships.
“Russia is concerned that weapons might be brought via ships to Ukraine and Ukraine is concerned about the safety of its grain deliveries to world markets,” she said.
Accordingly, ships entering Ukraine will be inspected under the supervision of the same joint coordination centre to ensure they are not carrying weapons.
The Russian and Ukrainian sides will also withhold attacks on any of the commercial vessels or ports engaged in the initiative to transport vital grain, while UN and Turkish monitors will be present in Ukrainian ports in order to demarcate areas protected by the agreement.
The blockade has worsened global supply chain disruptions and along with Western sanctions imposed on Moscow, stoked inflation in food prices since Russian forces swept into Ukraine on February 24.
Koseoglu said the agreement will also “pave the way for Russian food and fertilisers to reach world markets as well” after Moscow struggled with exports as a result of Western sanctions.
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Friday’s gathering in Istanbul marks “the first step to solve the current food crisis”.
The United States welcomed the deal, but warned it would hold Russia accountable for implementing it.
Al Jazeera’s diplomatic editor, James Bays, said the deal should be looked at with cautious optimism.
“One of the tests of this is how the shipping market reacts and there will be a test of implementation in the coming weeks to see if this goes ahead. It’s not going to happen straight away, you’re not going to see a ship that is sailing in the next couple of days,” Bays reported, speaking from the UN headquarters in New York City.
“I think we’re talking a couple of weeks at the earliest for the first ship of grain and remember we are talking about a 22-million-tonne grain backlog that has formed in Ukraine and has caused much of the global food crisis.”
Hours before the deal was to be signed, the Kremlin said it was “very important” to release grain exports.
“It is very important to unblock supplies of fertilisers, foodstuffs and grain to the world markets,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “It is a relatively small amount of Ukrainian grain, but still it is very important that this grain gets to world markets.”
Reporting from Kyiv, Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher said that Ukrainian officials stressed that Moscow and Kyiv signed separate agreements with the UN and Turkey.
“As far as [the Ukrainians] are concerned, this [the deal] is one and done for the time being. They see this as a deal that they have signed with the United Nations and with Turkey and certainly not with Russia,” he said.
“The Ukrainians here are very clear that they see the Russians as an aggressor nation and we know that they’re approaching the International Criminal Court to set up a whole new investigation with the intention of charging senior Russian leadership with the crime of being an aggressor nation,” Fisher said.