The international community welcomed a deal with Ukraine and Russia to resume grain and related products’ shipments from Ukrainian Black Sea ports (Chernomorsky, Yuzhny, and Odesa), brokered by the UN and Turkey on July 22, 2022. Yet, the brutal murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war in Olenivka, alongside with mysterious missile strike killing the owner of “Nibulon”, a big grain production company in Ukraine, put at risk the reputation of guarantors of agreements with Russia. Thus, grain “beacon of hope” might turn into another Russian mockery over international diplomacy.
The news on the Grain Initiative was taken with some “cautious optimism”. The International Coordination Center (ICC) to observe the Initiative was set up in Turkey at a striking speed in less than a week. All technical preparations were made to enable the first cargos in August. But many prefer to wait and see how Russia will be following its commitments.
Potential Diplomatic Benefits in Case of Success
The significance of the deal goes much wider. The solution sets a mechanism for dealing with two fighting states, which are barely talking with each other. It also cements the role of international players in a disrupted communication between Ukraine and Russia, without a necessity to bring them together at one negotiation table. Provided successful, it will demonstrate the efficiency of international diplomacy and the UN as a respectable referee, similar to the role played in the evacuation of civilians from Azovstal. It will also become a confidence-building measure for potential further negotiations (whenever there will be momentum) between Ukraine and Russia through a trusted third party(-ies).
Yet, “if” is the key word here, as so many issues remain open.
Grain Deal’s Modalities
Three separate agreements constitute a “package deal” (at least, in the Russian view) and relate to export of Ukrainian and Russian agroproducts. The UN-proposed Black Sea Grain Initiative is comprised of two separate agreements with Ukraine and Russia and relates to the export of Ukrainian grains and products. A separate UN and Russia memorandum stipulates for unimpeded exports of Russian foodstuff and fertilizers. Russians present this as their diplomatic victory and hint that this should be seen as the first step in gradual ease of sanctions, as they have regained access to international ports and freight facilities. Already on 25.07.22, Moscow called for the UN to secure the removal of curbs on Russian fertilizers and grain exports as part of the deal.
Confidence Mechanism and Guarantees
The JCC is comprised of joint inspection of Ukrainian, Russian, Turkish and UN teams. These should inspect and authorize all merchant vessels taking part in this Initiative in the harbours at the entry/exit to/from the Turkish strait. ICC is also in charge of operational and communications plans, inspections’ routine, registration and verification of merchant vessels. It also has to agree, authorize and observe a safety distance for military ships, aircrafts and UAVs.
The mechanism implies Russian engagement in all decision-making, thus, creating a perfect opportunity to cause artificial delays for vessels heading to/from Ukrainian ports. There are justifiable concerns of possible Russian provocations and sabotage, given the ill-famed history of their participation in OSCE Joint Monitoring Mission and Joint Control and Coordination Center under the Minsk Accords.
While the Russian and Ukrainian sides have agreed not to undertake any attacks against merchant/civilian vessels and port facilities engaged in this Initiative, the agreement falls short of form and scope of mutual security assurances. It also does not specify which activities should be called “suspicious” or what to consider a “non-compliance with the rules of operation”. This creates room for very loose interpretations, with a risk to undermine the actual security mechanism, if not the entire execution of the agreement. With a view to that, some of the insurance companies tend to qualify the suggested security guarantees as “gamble”, indicating that not many commercial vessels would dare to take a risk.
Interpretation of the Provisions
The Ukrainian officials are “satisfied with the Initiative”, which was “signed on Ukrainian terms”, where territorial waters of Ukraine remain in full control, and there is no risk of Russian warships entering Ukrainian ports. They say that Ukrainian pilot vessels will guide commercial vessels in order to navigate the mined areas around the coastline using a map of safe channels. In turn, Russia expects Ukraine to “demine their territorial waters”, and to have Turkish and Russian military ships to escort cargo vessels on a route in open waters “to ensure their security”. This difference in readings is already a fruitful soil for further disputes.
Security and Russia’s Dirty Tricks Concerns
Cautious optimism for the success of the Initiative was already contested, when on July 23rd Russia sent missiles over the Odesa seaport and destroyed part of its infrastructure. Russians reiterated that they made no claim not to destroy Ukrainian military infrastructure including sea ports. That makes Odesa, Chernomorsky and Yuzhny ports equally vulnerable to further Russian attacks aimed at deliberately undermining the safety of the Ukrainian exports via the Black Sea and hampering the actual export of Ukrainian grains. Recent alleged murder of Oleksiy Vadatursky and attacks on Nika-Tera ports in Mykolayv only intensify concerns about Russia’a dirty tricks. Meanwhile, Russia could enjoy its obstacles-free export of grains and fertilizers, thus benefiting from partial sanctions relief, both economically and diplomatically.