UN Agreement to Bring Ukrainian Grain to Starving Nations Obstructed by Trade Contracts

The Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship Razoni, carrying Ukrainian grain, in the Black Sea off Kilyos, near Turkey, on August 3.MEHMET CALISKAN/Reuters

Few freighters have received a bigger farewell than the Razoni, a Sierra Leone-flagged ship that left the Ukrainian port of Odessa last week loaded with 26,527 tons of corn.

Razoni’s departure received worldwide attention and was seen as a triumph of a UN-brokered deal to unblock Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and a step toward preventing a global food crisis.

The ship was supposed to go to Lebanon, which desperately needs food, but it didn’t get there. Instead, the crew changed course and headed for Turkey after the buyer of the corn refused to accept the delivery because it was five months overdue. “So, the carrier is now looking for another consignee to unload its cargo in Lebanon or any other country/port,” Ukraine’s embassy in Lebanon said in a statement this week.

The UN negotiated the grain deal last month with Ukraine, Russia and Turkey, and officials had high hopes it would free up millions of tons of food for countries in Africa teetering on the brink of starvation. Instead, the deal has run up against commercial interests, with the 12 ships that have left so far going to Britain, Ireland, Italy, China, South Korea and Turkey.

There have also been questions about a move by Ankara to get a discount on grain purchases as a reward for facilitating the deal. Last month, Turkey’s Agriculture Minister Vahit Kirisci said Ukraine had agreed to give his country a 25 percent discount if the deal went ahead.

On Wednesday, Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said the deal did not include any reimbursement. “In addition, we are not aware of any other agreements that guarantee a discount,” he said.

There is no doubt that the deal has been a major breakthrough in the war in Ukraine, which is entering its sixth month with no end in sight. Ukraine is a major grain exporter and many countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia depend heavily on its products.

Ukraine’s three main ports, in Odessa, Chornomorsk and Pivdennyi, have been closed since Russia’s invasion on February 24, leaving 20 million tons of wheat, barley, corn and oilseeds stranded.

The closure of ports has wreaked havoc on farmers and sent the price of Ukrainian grain plummeting. While some has been exported by truck and river, those shipments have been small and most farmers have been forced to store this summer’s harvest.

The UN agreement was seen as a way to move the grain and take it to the most needy countries. But UN officials now acknowledge that they are bound by commercial contracts and have little control over where the grain ends up.

Mr. Dujarric told reporters this week that the 27 ships stuck in Ukrainian ports were transporting grain under contract. “I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that these are commercial transactions,” he said. “They were under contract through business transactions. It is normal for them to go where the contract stipulates that they go.”

He insisted that the shipments have helped stabilize the price of some agricultural commodities, which will help developing countries and humanitarian organizations buy food.

For now, the only dedicated humanitarian shipment leaving the ports is being coordinated by the UN World Food Program. The WFP is trying to charter a boat to pick up a shipment of wheat and deliver it to Somalia and other countries in need. But the shipment has not yet been finalized and the grain deal only lasts 120 days.

The UN’s main priority is to get out the ships that have been stuck in the port since the beginning of the war. It takes up to two days to make the trip from Odessa to Istanbul, and the ships cannot travel at night under the grain agreement. Each ship is inspected to make sure no weapons are being carried.

“We are dealing with three ports that were essentially frozen in time on February 24,” said Fred Kenney, acting UN coordinator at the Joint Coordination Center (JCC) in Turkey, which oversees the grain deal. “It is now imperative for us to get those ships out so we can bring ships in to load cargo that will go to ports that will contribute to reducing global food insecurity.”

Mr. Kenney told a news conference on Wednesday that 370,000 tonnes of grain have been shipped so far and two ships have headed for ports. He added that he expected traffic to increase in both directions now that the JCC has established a route and set of procedures. And he expressed confidence that the UN goal of moving up to five million tons of grain each month will be met. “I can say that we receive literally dozens and dozens of phone calls every day and emails [from ship owners] wondering when we can get ready to leave.”

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