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Export of Russian grain 'not easy but very important’: UN coordinator for grain deal

Highlighting success of Black Sea Grain Initiative, Amir Abdulla says nearly 3M tons of foodstuff, grain moved from Ukrainian ports

Merve Aydogan and Emre Karaca  | 14.09.2022 - Update : 17.09.2022
Export of Russian grain 'not easy but very important’: UN coordinator for grain deal


The landmark Istanbul grain export deal is not "imbalanced" and exporting Russian grain is "not easy but very important," the UN coordinator for the agreement has said.

Türkiye, the UN, Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement in Istanbul on July 22 to resume grain exports from three Ukrainian Black Sea ports which were paused after the Russia-Ukraine war began in February.

A Joint Coordination Center with officials from the three countries and the UN was set up in Istanbul to oversee the shipments.

In an exclusive interview, Amir Abdulla, the UN's coordinator for the Black Sea Grain Initiative, told Anadolu Agency that "Türkiye has played an extremely important role in the initiative that we are working on."

During his two-day visit to the Turkish capital Ankara, Abdulla said he met separately with Türkiye's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.

Expressing his gratitude to Türkiye over its "extremely important" role in the initiative, Abdulla also said the UN "looks to Türkiye for support as this initiative moves forward. It will need to be extended and may need some refinement, and quite honestly, with the role that Türkiye plays both globally and regionally, it is well-placed to do that."

The UN official's main objective of visit, which he said will continue to take place every two weeks or so, was extending the deal, which was agreed for 120 days, with a possible extension if all parties agree.

"The initiative has done very well so far. We have had 129 ships. We've moved nearly 3 million tons of food and different grain stuffs through the Black Sea from the Ukrainian ports. But we have the 120 days, and that's what's been approved so far," he said.

"So one of the main initiatives was to discuss with officials of the government of Türkiye, the ones primarily involved in the initiative, to seek their views and support for the further extension."

Voicing his pleasure over the "positive" approach by Turkish officials on the extending of the initiative, Abdulla said the Turkish officials and he also addressed things that could be done to "improve the efficiencies" of the initiative, as he said there are "a lot of complicated parts" to it.

On possible improvements, Abdulla first noted that the initiative is "quite a complex operation."

"We have to inspect ships when they're empty going into Ukraine. Then we inspect them again full coming out. And these inspections are quite time-consuming and quite difficult," he said, adding they have discussed ways to make the "inspection process a bit more fluid ... Maybe we need to increase the number of inspection teams."

"The other improvement, which we're seeing happen gradually, is that there is confidence in the market," the UN official said, recalling the shipping industry's initial unwillingness to participate in the initiative due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

"You're actually asking ships to sail in a conflict zone, but we've given them a corridor of peace, a corridor of tranquility with guarantees of no attacks within the corridor. So there is confidence being restored, but we need to see that confidence increase so that people will put more ships so that we can get a higher number of ships sailing through the corridor," he said.

'Important to get Ukrainian, Russian grain to market'

Abdulla also emphasized the need for "bigger and more expensive types of ships" with the aim of exporting more commodities.

Despite the success of the landmark deal, there are some criticisms over exported Ukrainian grain going to developed countries only.

The UN official clarified the situation, as he noted that some of the grain did go to EU states, "but a significant amount went to other countries."

Türkiye, he said, is among the leading countries that have received Ukrainian grain, adding, "actually, much of the food that came to Türkiye is probably going to be processed and shipped to parts of Africa and other parts of Asia."

According to the UN, 28% low and lower-middle income countries – including Egypt, Iran, India, Sudan, and Kenya as well as Djibouti, Lebanon, Somalia, and Yemen; 27% upper-middle income countries – including Türkiye, China and Bulgaria; and 44% of high-income countries like Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Republic of Korea, Romania, Germany, France, Greece, Ireland, and Israel were the destinations for grain exported from Ukraine as of Sept. 12.

"What is important, I think, to note is that the corridor and the initiative were really designed to make sure that food and fertilizer flow would begin restoring (the trade route) and open the route," Abdulla said.

He also affirmed the importance of restoring trade routes for commodities.

"When we look at the commodities that have gone through the corridor, the distribution between the different countries, the different types of commodities, the different objectives, it's probably very much in line with what happened before the conflict. So opening the corridor wasn't to just take food to one type of country or for one type of operation. It was to restore a corridor and a trade route," he remarked.

After restoration of a trade route, the trade mechanisms can take over then allow the market to dictate, the UN official said.

He went on saying that the drop of global food prices would allow poorer countries to afford more food. "So they don't have to pay as much as they did before ... So the results and the achievements of this corridor go even beyond what came through the corridor itself."

On the export of Russian grain, Abdulla said the reason for conceiving, negotiating and then approving the initiative was because "it's very important to get both Ukrainian grain and Russian grain and fertilizer back in the market."

He elaborated: "The ports that we are operating under the Black Sea Grain Initiative, are the three of the Ukrainian ports, and most of the commodity coming along those lines is Ukrainian grain."

Russian grain exports need to take place from Russian ports, he said.

"That side of the initiative is covered by a different agreement, which I'm not working on directly, but I'm very much in touch to discuss with the UN officials who are working on that side," he said, adding that there are some restrictions and difficulties on "getting insurance mechanisms for the ships calling in Russian ports."

Some restrictions, Abdulla said, are financial and "we haven't probably yet seen enough Russian grain or fertilizer going out of Russian ports and some of those negotiations are a bit more difficult."

The Black Sea Grain Initiative is operating as agreed, the UN official underscored, adding the initiative is "not imbalanced, not out of sync, and it is with what was expected."

"But I would say probably from the Russian perspective, things are not happening fast enough on the Russian side, but they are happening. Some of them are not necessarily reported on as they might not be as visible and don't include as many different partners. But, but I can understand the sense of frustration perhaps," he said.

He also affirmed that getting Russian grain out will not "be easy," saying it will "depend on goodwill of many parties."

"How important is it? It is very important. So I think that when people really look at it and understand the importance, when they understand the significance ... then I hope that the goodwill will come," he added.

Türkiye is 'one of initial influences' in grain initiative

The UN official affirmed that food fertilizers are not part of sanctions. "Some of the surrounding mechanisms, the logistics under supply, which includes the insurance, the ports and the finance, those are not have not been put in sync or completely approved to the level that will be needed for those movements. But it's all under discussion, all under negotiation.

"I think there is an understanding that the extension will somehow also have some kind of relationship with that equity that I just mentioned and I hope we can get that."

Abdulla further said that it is not only grain that is being exported via the landmark deal, but also oil seeds and liquid oil.

"What we haven't had yet is actually fertilizer or ammonia shipped. And one of the reasons for that, and this is the complication, is on the ammonia of fertilizer that would come through Ukrainian ports would be actually of Russian origin," he said.

There is a pipeline from Russia to Ukraine carrying ammonia which is stored in a Ukrainian port then shipped through the Black Sea route, Abdulla said, but the route for ammonia has been halted due to the conflict.

"We are dealing with parties who are in open conflict with each other. So getting any kind of agreement with parties who are in open conflict with each other is not easy," he added.

While the current initiative is to be renewed if no side voices objection, the UN official urged not to be "complacent" and said "I don't think we can sit back and just assume that after 120 days, it will renew. I think a lot of work and effort must go into it. But I believe the achievements that we've managed are too important for it not to be renewed."

Expressing hope for the renewal of the initiative, the UN official said: "There may be some refinements needed but I believe Türkiye is firmly behind this initiative. They were one of the initial influences of the initiative. So I would say with the goodwill of the parties, with the full support of Türkiye, we'll get it there."

On a possible separate deal to tackle the energy crisis, he said it is "hard to say" but affirmed that the deal can "build up confidence to show that these agreements can be made, even when countries are totally disagreeing about other things, even when they agreeing about initiatives that are for the good of humanity, for the good of the global good."

Abdulla added: "I hope that it can happen, but I don't think it will be easy."

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