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The first grain ship has left Ukraine under the Black Sea deal. Now what?

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The first ship carrying grain out of Ukraine under a deal with Russia to reopen Black Sea routes set sail this morning. It’s due to travel along the corridor that Moscow and Kyiv agreed to keep safe under a deal brokered by the U.N. and Turkey.

The agreement is significant for Ukraine as a major food exporter and for the rest of the world, especially import-dependent countries facing food shortages. Russia promised not to attack the ships, but many — including Ukrainian officials — are apprehensive about Russian President Vladimir Putin keeping his side of the contract.

The cargo ship Razoni, which sails under the Sierra Leone flag, is carrying 26,000 tons of Ukrainian corn, according to a statement from Ukraine’s infrastructure ministry.

It’s a “day of relief for the world, especially for our friends in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, as the first Ukrainian grain leaves Odesa after months of Russian blockade,” tweeted Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

The Razoni is en route to the port of Tripoli in Lebanon, according to marine traffic data, and it’s expected to arrive on Tuesday at 9 p.m. local time.

Is this significant?

Yes.

The departure of the first grain ship is a major step as it shows that diplomacy can work — at least for now — between the warring countries. The U.N. said Monday that its World Food Programme will charter a vessel full of wheat under the agreement, raising hopes that Ukraine’s grain can now get to those most in need.

It’s a big test of the U.N. and its capability to step in to ameliorate international conflict. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres staked a lot on making this deal happen, after declaring in March that the world must act to prevent a “hurricane of hunger.” 

The agreement also places Turkey, another Black Sea power, in a key brokering role. The country will host a coordination center in Istanbul that will monitor ships’ movements, and take part in the “inspection team” to check the vessels for weapons smuggling as they pass through the Turkish strait.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu suggested Monday the deal could be a blueprint for a ceasefire and broader peace deal between Russia and Ukraine. A negotiated peace looks unlikely at the moment, but if the agreement sticks, it could give both countries a platform on which to continue talking.

Will Russia stick to the deal?

It’s unclear.

In recent history, Russia has repeatedly flouted and violated international agreements — after all, it invaded Ukraine. So why would Moscow have any interest in sticking to a grain export deal with the country it’s invading? 

The deal gives Russia significant leverage over Ukraine, which desperately needs access to the Black Sea to keep exporting. 

In exchange for signing on to the grain agreement, Russia obtained promises that the U.N. will “facilitate the unimpeded exports to world markets of Russian food and fertilizer.” Concretely, this means that Western sanctions can’t interfere with any food, fertilizer or ammonium exports out of Russia. While Western sanctions don’t target Russian food or fertilizers exports, Russian officials say that other barriers including high insurance premiums and lack of access to international payment systems and Western seaports hurt those exports, too.

Moscow can also use the grain agreement as a propaganda tool and sell itself as a guarantor of food security for African countries — which is exactly what Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did during a tour of Africa in July.

But Russia’s already been testing the boundaries of the grain deal: Moscow bombed Odesa and its port infrastructure just a day after the pact was concluded. 

And on Sunday, grain magnate Oleksiy Vadatursky was killed in what Ukrainian authorities believe was a targeted missile strike by Russia on his home in the port city of Mykolaiv, which is not covered by the safe corridor deal.

The same day, a Ukrainian drone wounded six people in an attack on Russia’s Black Sea fleet headquarters in Crimea, prompting Russia to cancel naval ceremonies.

What does this mean for the food crisis?

This won’t fix the food crisis, but it will certainly help if Ukraine starts pumping out grain again. World hunger has been growing at an alarming rate and the Ukraine war will likely make it worse.

A shipment of 26,000 tons of corn is a drop in the ocean in terms of what the next four months could see exported.

Some 20 millions tons are already stuck in silos in Ukraine and up to 60 million tons more are expected from this summer’s harvest. If all goes to plan, between four and five million tons of grain could leave the ports of Odesa every month until November, when the parties to the deal will have to decide to extend it or let it lapse.

More grain in the market could also mean stable or even lower prices globally.

The resumption of exports could hand Ukraine some much needed cash. If Kyiv successfully sells 20 million tons of grain, it stands to gain “at least $1 billion in foreign exchange earnings,” according to Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov. Emptying the silos will also ease pressure on Ukraine’s farmers, who have struggled to find space to store the crops they’ve been harvesting.

But worries remain: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned over the weekend that Ukraine’s harvest this year could be “twice less” because of Russia’s invasion.

Others, including the head of the U.N.’s agricultural development agency pointed out that the Ukraine war is only one factor causing global hunger and rural poverty. Other factors – including the pandemic, long-term underinvestment in poor rural areas and extreme weather – are harder to mitigate.

The exorbitant cost of fertilizers linked to the energy crisis could also endanger future harvests, not just in Ukraine but around the world.

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