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How Türkiye made Ukraine grain exports deal with Russia possible

Türkiye and the UN have been working for two months to negotiate with Russia a passage for Ukraine’s grain exports as the world grappled with a food crisis, threatening millions in food-poor countries.

Their efforts came to fruition with the signing of an agreement in Istanbul on Friday, which will see a resumption of Ukrainian grain shipments from the Black Sea to global markets.

The warring parties—Ukraine and Russia—both saw Türkiye as a credible arbiter, letting Ankara host the grain talks under the supervision of the UN. 

Nazmul Islam, an assistant professor of political science and public administration at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University, looks at Türkiye’s mediation from the historical prism of “humanitarian diplomacy”.

“This deal is a part of a long-term mediation process that Türkiye started at the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.”

Islam says Türkiye’s strategic balance in the region, especially having a position to sit with both Western and non-Western actors, played a crucial role in mediation, which led to this important deal, easing a standoff that was becoming a threat to global food security.

Both Russia and Ukraine are the world’s major exporters of wheat. When Moscow launched its assault on Ukraine, it blocked a key Ukrainian port of Odesa, leaving many ships with millions of tonnes of grain stranded.

Most of the world’s food-poor countries, such as Pakistan, Lebanon and Yemen, rely on Ukrainian wheat imports. The release of the grain stocks as a result of the agreement will be to the benefit of the developing countries the most as they suffer with soaring prices of essential commodities.

“By playing its part in this deal, Türkiye has protected the international community from nine specific risks: trade, price, logistical, production, energy, exchange rate, debt, growth and humanitarian risks,” says Islam.

What does the deal entail?

The four-party agreement, involving the UN, Türkiye, Russia and Ukraine, will enable Kiev to export 22 million tonnes of stranded grain to world markets.

The agreement, however, seeks the establishment of a control centre, to be managed collectively by the UN, Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian officials, in Istanbul. Their task would be to “run and coordinate” the grain exports.

The control centre would inspect ships to ensure they are carrying grains and fertilizer, and not weapons.

It was the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who first raised the critical need to get Ukraine’s agricultural production and Russia’s grain and fertilizer production back into world markets during meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kiev in late April.

Many food-poor African countries, too, rely on Ukrainian and Russian supplies. In case of the continued blockade, Guterres feared it could have led to worsening hunger for up to 181 million people the world over.

If things worked out as planned, Ukraine would be able to quickly restart exports, its Deputy Agriculture Minister Taras Vysotskiy said on Thursday.

Speaking to a Ukrainian TV, he said, “The majority of the infrastructure of ports of wider Odesa – there are three of them – remains, so it is a question of several weeks in the event there are proper security guarantees.”

Guterres, while speaking at the signing of the deal, thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and all those who helped make the deal happen.

“To our hosts and President Erdogan and the government of Türkiye, your facilitation and persistence have been essential through every step of the process,” he said.

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