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  • Writer's pictureMichael MacArthur Bosack

Understanding the Black Sea Grain Initiative

Delegates sign the Black Sea Grain Initiative in Istanbul, 22 July 2022 (photo via Twitter @MevlutCavusoglu)


On July 22, nearly five months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, delegates from the warring parties convened in Istanbul with counterparts from Turkey and the United Nations to conclude the “Black Sea Grain Initiative.” In principle, this agreement is meant to stave off an impending global food security catastrophe. In practice, the ability to implement the agreement is already being called into question as Russian forces test the boundaries of its provisions. Yet, hope remains for all it might mean for the war going forward.

For many observers of the war, the sight of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu sitting at the same table as a Ukrainian Cabinet Minister to sign any agreement would seem unthinkable. After all, Russia has engaged in indiscriminate bombing against Ukrainian cities, and the International Criminal Court dispatched its largest-ever investigation team to be able to document all the wartime atrocities. So, how did the warring parties conclude the “Black Sea Grain Initiative,” and what exactly did Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and the United Nations agree upon in Istanbul?

To understand the agreement, some background information is necessary. Aside from the obvious impacts on Ukraine, Russia’s war of aggression has also had global implications, not least of which was triggering a food security crisis. Before the war, Ukraine and Russia accounted for 29% of global wheat exports and 62% of the world’s sunflower oil. Those figures also do not account for fertilizer and other foodstuffs. More than just trade, Ukraine alone provides 40% of the World Food Programme's wheat supply. To put that into context, the WFP reported that Ukrainian grain fed over 400 million people in 2021.

The Russian invasion disrupted all manners of trade, but especially in maritime exports. While Russian land forces attempted to encircle Kyiv and secure territory, its naval forces worked on capturing key maritime outposts (such as the Zemiinyi “Snake” island of “Russian Warship, go f*** yourself” fame) and imposed a de facto blockade of Ukrainian ports. Meanwhile, the Russians have laid blame on Ukrainian sea mines for disrupting civilian shipping, while Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of exploiting the war to export stolen Ukrainian grain.

After ceasefire negotiations stalled in early April, a resolution on food security between the warring parties seemed unlikely, but in stepped the United Nations and Turkey. Early in the war, both the UN and Turkey took steps to mediate an end to hostilities and broker deals. When their original efforts at a complete ceasefire failed, they focused on more narrow objectives–in this case, food security.

Why would the UN be the one to broker such a deal? While the UN is not equipped to stop Russian aggression, it has the institutions and capacity to ensure that the war does not trigger a global catastrophe. As second Secretary-General of the UN Dag Hammarskjöld once remarked, “The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell,” and as soon as the severity of the food crisis became evident, the UN stepped in. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made personnel efforts to engage, traveling to both Moscow and Kyiv at the end of April to push Russian and Ukrainian leaders towards a deal on food security. Meanwhile, there was a “round-the-clock” effort behind the scenes by UN personnel to engage with the warring parties.

At the same time, Turkey was uniquely postured to broker a deal since it controls access to the Black Sea via the Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits. It also helps that Turkey has the weight of NATO defense commitments behind it to bolster its negotiating position. In short, the Turkish government has leverage over Russia and has used it to great effect.

Turkey initiated its mediation effort soon after the invasion began, hosting a pair of ceasefire negotiations in March. First were the Foreign Ministerial talks between Dmytro Kuleba and Sergei Lavrov in Antalya on March 10. Later, the Turkish government hosted the two sides’ designated ceasefire negotiating teams in Istanbul on March 29. It was in that meeting that Russia agreed to withdraw its forces from Kyiv Oblast.

When ceasefire talks fell through owing to the revelation of Russian war atrocities, Turkey kept up its mediation effort, engaging Russia on issues such as humanitarian evacuation from Mariupol and food security. In late May, Turkey and Russia initiated bilateral negotiations on maritime corridors for grain shipments, focusing first on opening the port of Odessa in Ukraine. Those talks fell through, with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu publicly challenging Sergei Lavrov’s claim that Russia was ready to allow grain exports.

Turkish and UN officials moved to advocacy for a four-party agreement, engaging both Russia and Ukraine to secure a deal. On June 20, a military delegation from Turkey traveled to Moscow to negotiate—among other things—the terms of a deal that would enable grain exports. After a few more senior level engagements by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu, Turkey hosted delegates from Ukraine, Russia, and the UN to conclude negotiations on an “ad referendum” agreement on July 13; meaning, to produce an agreement that was ready for approval and signature. Nine days later, Turkey hosted officials including Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to sign the "Black Sea Grain Initiative."

To be clear, the "Black Sea Grain Initiative" is actually composed of two agreements: (1) “Initiatives for the safe transportation of grain and food from the ports of Ukraine”; and (2) “Memorandum of understanding between the Russian Federation and the UN Secretariat on the promotion of Russian products, food, and fertilizers to world markets.” Turkey and the UN signed those agreements with Ukraine and Russia separately, as the Ukrainian government did not want to put any signatures on paper with the aggressor country, especially one that would support the export of Russian goods. This pair of agreements collectively aims to establish a mechanism for the safe transportation of grain, foodstuffs, and fertilizer through the Black Sea to global markets.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative calls for the establishment of a Joint Coordination Centre (JCC) in Istanbul. The JCC will be composed of Turkish, Ukrainian, Russian, and UN officials, and is responsible for monitoring safe passage from three Ukrainian ports: Odessa, Chornomorsk, and Yuzhne. It will do so via four core tasks: (1) monitoring the movement of commercial vessels to ensure compliance; (2) focusing on only the export of bulk commercial grain and related food commodities; (3) ensuring the on-site control and monitoring of cargo from Ukrainian ports; and (4) reporting on shipments facilitated through the Black Sea Grain Initiative. What the JCC will not do is facilitate the export of food from countries other than Ukraine or exports of containers and non-food items not included under the provisions of the agreements.

Meanwhile, the United Nations agreed to facilitate the unimpeded exports to world markets of Russian food and fertilizer, including raw materials needed to produce fertilizers. This agreement creates a clear exemption for these activities from other sanctions imposed on Russia. In exchange, Russia committed to facilitating the unimpeded export of food, sunflower oil, and fertilizers from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.

Work to set up the JCC began on July 23, but there are already problems with implementation. Less than twenty-four hours after the signing of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Russian forces launched four missiles at port facilities in Odessa. UN Secretary-General Guterres ‘unequivocally condemned’ the strikes, stating that “all parties made clear commitments on the global stage to ensure the safe movement of Ukrainian grain and related products to global markets.” At first, the Russian government denied the attacks, only to have their Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Maria Zakharova later claim that Russian forces struck military targets with precision guided munitions.

Ukrainian Presidential Advisor and ceasefire negotiator Mikhail Podolyak rejected the Russian duplicity. Podolyak had participated in each of the face-to-face ceasefire talks, and while in March he remarked, "Strange as it may seem, the atmosphere was very constructive," his response posted after the attack on Odessa was far less conciliatory: “[The Russian Federation] is predictably worthless. The ink has not had time to dry out, yet there are two vile provocations: attack on a sea port in Odessa and a statement by [Russian] Defense Ministry that [Ukrainian] ports are ‘dangerous for shipping’. A reminder to the world of what [Russia’s] ‘pursuit of peace’ is worth.”

Despite this initial setback, work via the Joint Coordination Centre pressed forward. The JCC was formally stood up in the Turkish Ministry of Defense’s university campus in the Levent neighborhood of Istanbul. Initial staffing consists of about twenty personnel including Turkish, Russian, and Ukrainian military officers and UN representatives under the management of a Turkish admiral. Together, they are working to actualize the first shipments under the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

The world will now be watching how effectively the four parties can carry out the terms of the agreement. After all, there are millions of people counting on it. The fundamental question is whether the negotiators were able to produce a truly implementable deal—the answer to which not only has implications for global food security, but for the prospects of ending the war at the negotiating table.

The Joint Coordination Centre in Istanbul, 27 July 2022 (photo via twitter @tcsavunma)


Michael MacArthur Bosack is a seasoned international negotiator and the founder of the Parley Policy Initiative. He is the Special Adviser for Government Relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. Michael is a former East-West Center Fellow, a military veteran, and the author of “Negotiate: A Primer for Practitioners.”

Cable No 14_Understanding the Black Sea Grain Initiative
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