Diplomacy of Grains, Ukrainian Crisis: Approaching a Solution or a Fighting Timeout?

Russia and Ukraine are signing an agreement with Turkey and the United Nations on shipping Ukrainian grain, foodstuff, and fertilizer to international markets via the Black Sea in Istanbul, on July 22, 2022. (Xinhua/Shadati)
Russia and Ukraine are signing an agreement with Turkey and the United Nations on shipping Ukrainian grain, foodstuff, and fertilizer to international markets via the Black Sea in Istanbul, on July 22, 2022. (Xinhua/Shadati)

Diplomacy of Grains, Ukrainian Crisis: Approaching a Solution or a Fighting Timeout?

Diplomacy as a tool for managing international relations in times of peace and in the process of searching for solutions to a state of war has garnered several adjectives. Each one of these descriptions derives its name from the nature of the process in which diplomatic work is conducted. This applies to the grain agreement signed on July 22 in the Turkish capital, Ankara, under the auspices of the United Nations, between the two parties to the crisis (Russia and Ukraine). Two agreements were reached, not one, even though these two agreements regulate a single object. The explanation lies in the hardline positions of the two parties at the center of the crisis, and their refusal to sign a joint document. Therefore, each party signed an independent document with the parties sponsoring the negotiations, that limited the export of grains and oils in order to save the global economy, which has begun to enter into a new crisis and is gaining complex dimensions with multiple repercussions and aftereffects. The crisis this time follows its global predecessors associated with the outbreak of COVID-19.

Amidst this diplomatic step, which is a compromise between hardline stances on the part of the crisis parties and the attempt to save the world from a rapidly worsening food crisis, this report reviews the agreement signed between the parties, its role and future through two themes as follows:

Farmers harvest a wheat field in the Ukrainian Kharkiv region on July 19, 2022, amid Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by SERGEY BOBOK / AFP)

I- The grain agreement: Specific clauses and limited reactions:

The Grain Agreement, or what some call the “Southern Corridor,” gained wide international, regional and local attention. After its signing, extensive discussions took place, many articles were published about it, and several analysis pieces discussed it, although its clauses are not that many, as the agreement included five main clauses, namely:

- Enable Ukraine to export 25 million tons of grain and other agricultural goods within 120 days from the date of signing the grain agreement.

- The Ukrainians lead the ships loaded with grain through safe channels in the middle of the waters full of mines to three ports: Odessa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny on the condition that the ships leave the Ukrainian territorial waters in the Black Sea and cross the Bosphorus Strait to a Turkish port for inspection and then head to their destinations.

- All sea corridors from the three Ukrainian ports to the Bosphorus Strait will be completely safe, not because of the complete removal of sea mines, but rather that there would be no military operations there.

- Allow Russia to export grain and fertilizers, as in exchange for allowing Ukraine to export. Sanctions on Russia’s exports of wheat and fertilizers will be halted, as the volume of its exports, according to Russian estimates, is approximately 50 million tons, which means that all Russian regions around the Sea of ​​Azov, Kerch Strait and the port of Sevastopol will be safe areas.

- Establish a control center in Istanbul, staffed by officials from the United Nations, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine, and tasked with coordinating and managing grain exports. The ships will be inspected to ensure that they carry grain and fertilizer and not weapons.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar (R) and military delegations of Russia and Ukraine, United nations (UN) sit at the opening of the coordination centre for Ukrainian grain exports in Istanbul on july 27, 2022. (Photo by OZAN KOSE / AFP)

Also, the international reactions were not at the level of the importance of this agreed, but were overwhelmed by caution and called on the two parties to abide by the agreement’s terms, starting with the United Nations, the sponsor of the agreement. According to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: “The Russian-Ukrainian grain agreement opens a path for significant commercial food exports from Kyiv through the Black Sea, and the agreement between the two countries will help avoid the catastrophe of food shortages for millions around the world.” In the same context, the European Union, according to Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the EU believes that the signing of the agreement on Ukrainian grain exports is a step in the right direction in order to overcome the severe crises that swept the global food markets for several months. The United States has also demanded Moscow to implement the agreement. State Department spokesman Ned Price said his country welcomed “the announcement of this agreement in principle, but what concerns us now is to hold Russia responsible for implementing this agreement and allowing Ukrainian grain to reach global markets.”

II - The Grain Agreement and Possible Future Paths:

If it is true that the grain agreement represents a step towards easing the hardline stances between the two parties by seeking to ensure that they adhere to its articles, then it is also true that signing it at this particular time raises a question no less important than the question of its potential tracks considering its nutritional and humanitarian dimensions. Will it be a political motive to encourage the parties to start engaging in a political solution acceptable for them? The answer to this question bears two possible paths, namely:

The first track considers the agreement a step towards mitigating the intensity of the conflict, meaning that the agreement may be the beginning of a broader settlement that includes a cease-fire and the start of serious negotiations between the two parties. There is also the possibility of expanding and concluding more agreements that would mitigate the economic repercussions of the crisis globally in general and the one related to the oil, gas and grain sectors in particular, evidenced by some indicators, including:

1- The pledge made by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on the sidelines of the signing of the agreement that “Moscow will not take advantage of demining and opening Ukrainian ports within the framework of an agreement brokered by the United Nations to resume vital grain exports ... Russia has taken upon itself the obligations clearly stipulated in this agreement. We will not take advantage of the fact that the ports will be cleared and opened. We have made a commitment.”

2- The inability of all Russian, Ukrainian and Western parties to continue the war, and bear its economic effects on all parties. For Russia, which has achieved some gains, whether on the ground or on the economic level, it has incurred great losses at the human and artillery levels since the start of the war. It has also been unable to resolve the situation more quickly on the ground. Likewise, Ukraine, whose economy is deteriorating at a rate so fast that even Western aid, no matter how generous it is, will not be able to compensate for the damage caused to the country's infrastructure. The Western side, especially the European one, has become unable to bear the burdens of a long war that drains many of its resources to support Ukraine with weapons and money. The this is done at the expense of Western economies and their growth. Moreover, a harsh winter is awaiting European countries due to the low volumes of gas flowing from Russian pipelines, and the difficulty of securing alternatives to Russian energy supplies. This has affected basic industries and caused a wave of economic stagnation, whose features have begun taking shape as the euro fell to parity with the dollar for the first time since 2002. Moreover, the instructions issued by various European countries to regulate energy consumption are the clearest evidence of the difficulties awaiting these countries in the coming months.

As for the second track, the agreement will not lead to a regression or cessation of the military operation. Rather, it is likely that the agreement will not undergo a renewal should it remain effective till the period specified in it. Indicators of this are:

Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

1- The persistence of the battles between the two parties (Russian - Ukrainian), evidenced in the Russian bombing that targeted the main port of Odessa on July 23, 2022, one day after the signing of the agreement. Serhiy Prachuk, a spokesman for the Odessa military administration, announced that “two missiles hit the port's infrastructure, while the Ukrainian air defenses succeeded in shooting down two others.” This is an indicator of the escalation on the battlefields despite the signing of the agreement, which was confirmed by the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu when he said, “This strike was targeting the military infrastructure in the port, and no article in the grain agreement prevents Russia from continuing to attack the military infrastructure in Ukraine.” Russia’s stance has pushed the Ukrainian side to be tougher on the issue of removing mines from Ukrainian waters, fearing that Russia will take advantage of this. The spokesman for the city’s military administration addressed that: “Ukraine will not completely remove mines from the port area despite an export agreement for grain with Russia, which was signed last Friday ... because opening the port for the export of Ukrainian grain despite the recent Russian bombing of the port's infrastructure does not involve a complete demining.” It is worth noting that what happened was expected by some Ukrainian politicians like Hryhoriy Nemyria, the former deputy prime minister who is now the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Verkhovna Rada. According to Nemyria, the Ukrainians fear “the possibility of Russia using these talks not only for procrastination (and regrouping its armies), but also for example, to launch an attack on Odessa. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the European Union Foreign Minister Josep Borrell condemned the bombing, and a statement issued by the UN stated: “The Secretary-General Antonio Guterres unequivocally condemns the strikes on the Ukrainian port of Odessa.”

2- The aggravation of the dispute and the conflicting international agendas in Ukraine, indicated by the process of signing the agreement itself, as the Russian and Ukrainian ministers avoided sitting at the same table or shaking hands during the signing ceremony of the agreement. The agreement was signed by the Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu separately with his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar, after which the Ukrainian Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov signed the agreement with the Turkish Minister under the supervision of the UN Secretary-General. This is in addition to the multiplicity of files and other complex issues that are still pending between them, for example those related to energy and minerals, and others related to the Western sanctions imposed on Russia.

Regardless of the effects of this agreement on the course of the military operation, it carried an important humanitarian dimension in limiting the aggravation of the global food crisis. As Ukraine restored its role in the global grain and oil market, this would mitigate the price hikes that had economic and social impact on many countries. As soon as the agreement was signed, there was a 3% decline in world wheat prices on the Chicago Stock Exchange, and corn and soybean prices also fell to their lowest levels in about 8 months.

Harvested wheat grain is loaded into a truck in Tersky village, near Stavropol, Russia, in July. | BLOOMBERG

In light of the aforementioned discussion, we conclude that it is difficult to disregard the importance of signing such an agreement, which is the first of its kind between the two countries since the start of the military operation last February, in reducing global food prices. The agreement, however, is not expected to put an end to that war unless the parties involved in it realize its high cost, which is paid for by the whole world and not only the citizens of the two warring countries. This is what these parties have begun to realize, which raises the hope for setting the beginnings for the end of this war during the coming autumn at least, provided that the agreement is agreed upon. The parties should restructure the paths of their relations on the one hand and draw a roadmap capable of taking into consideration the new developments and the dimensions of the upcoming threats on the other hand. Without this realization, the crisis will remain open to various scenarios that would not bring the region and the world at large stability and peace and may even drag everyone into a war whose high price and increasing costs are paid, not only by its direct parties but also by the rest of the world. Is such a tragic end awaiting everyone? Or will they wake up before it is too late?

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