Russia-Ukraine grain deal: Feeding the world

Ahmed Eleiba , Wednesday 27 Jul 2022

Kyiv expects the Turkish-brokered deal on the release of grain shipments from the port of Odessa to go into effect this week, the Ukrainian Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov announced in a press conference on Monday.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
In this file photo Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and U.N. Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, sit as Sergei Shoigu, Russia s Defense Minister, and Hulusi Akar, Turkey s Defense Minister, shake hands during a signing ceremony at Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, July 22, 2022. AP


Arrangements are in progress to organise convoys to accompany the shipments and they should be ready “in the next few days,” he said. Russia and Ukraine separately signed the agreement with Turkey and the UN, raising hopes among many countries in the Middle East and Africa that are dependant on Ukrainian grain shipments and that have suffered severe shortages as a result of the halt in vital supplies from Odessa. The price of wheat and food oils have skyrocketed globally since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February.

No sooner had the UN hailed the grain deal as a “de facto ceasefire” between Russia and Ukraine than Russia fired four Kalibr missiles, however, two of which hit the area near a pumping station at the port while the other two were intercepted by Ukrainian air defences, according to Ukrainian military sources. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko decried the strike saying that Putin “spat in the face” of Turkey and the UN.

Russia countered that the missiles had targeted a weapons storehouse in Odessa housing high-precision missiles. Observers have interpreted this as a message from Moscow that the grain agreement aside, its so called special military operation in Ukraine is ongoing.

Under the terms of the agreement, which releases Ukrainian grain and other agricultural shipments from Odessa, Russia will have the same right, according to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. In other words, the economic restrictions imposed by international sanctions regimes will be lifted on Russian grain and agricultural exports. The UN has confirmed this. It believes that the rest of the world should not have to shoulder the economic fallout from this war, which puts a large portion of the global population at risk of starvation.

According to available information on the agreement, Russia has not committed to a ceasefire in the areas where the export activity is taking place. However, it is obliged to withhold fire when and where export activities are in progress. Under the agreement, Ukraine will be responsible for steering the ships through the Black Sea waters in the vicinity of Odessa. Ukrainian forces have heavily mined these waters, which Russia had cited as the main obstacle to the grain shipments. The Ukrainian insistence on navigating the ships through these dangerous waters may be in order to prevent the Russians from discovering the corridors between the mines.

Ukraine, of course, needs the revenues from those exports, to help allay the heavy economic toll from the war. But the agreement does reduce the risk of Russian attacks on Odessa and, thus, while this may not be a ceasefire it is a form of de-escalation. Also, the joint Turkish-UN search mechanism will also deprive Russia of a pretext to strike on the grounds of arms being smuggled into the Black Sea port aboard the grain ships. In the context of the larger battle, the agreement works to keep Odessa free from the Russian bid to control Ukraine’s southern littoral and isolate the country from the sea.

According to recent media reports, Ukrainian forces are pushing back against this strategy. Recently, they have launched an offensive to regain Kherson, a strategic town near the mouth of the Dnieper which Russian forces have partially occupied. Last week, the Ukrainians destroyed the bridges leading to the city, creating a logistical obstacle to a Russian assault.

In a related development, Russia has announced that it targeted a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), one of several the US has offered Ukraine in accordance with an agreement signed earlier this year. The missile launcher was originally designed as a long-range weapon that could reach up to 300 km. But under the terms of the contract, Ukraine can only use them up to ranges of no more than 80 km and should not fire missiles into Russia. But this does not prevent Ukrainian forces from using them against targets in the Donbas region or areas that have fallen to Russia, such as Mariupol.

Despite the stipulated restrictions, Russian officials have stated that the HIMARS are the most dangerous weapons yet available to Ukrainian forces. On 25 July, the Russian Defence Ministry announced that it had destroyed a HIMARS rocket system when targeting an arms depot the Khmelnytskyi region.

The ministry said the depot had also housed ammunition for the US M777 Large-Calibre Howitzer, an S-300 defence system and various Grad missile launchers belonging to Ukrainian forces in the Donbas. Russian air defence systems also downed six Ukrainian drones in the Kamianka, Brazhkova and Komisarovka regions in the vicinity of Kharkiv and Khartsyzk in the Donetsk. Such statistics point to the Russian ability to target forward Ukrainian positions and offensive capacities.

On the other hand, according to the interactive maps on the Institute of Studies of War (ISW) website, Russian forces have not gained much ground recently, although they have launched a three pronged offensive towards Kharkiv. They have also targeted locations in Mykolaiv, striking an oil depot in the area. On the other hand, Ukrainian forces have struck vital logistic targets that Russian forces have tried to seize, such as some railroads in the Nova Kakhova area of the Zaborizhzhya Oblast and some airports such as the one at Melitopol.

It appears from the foregoing that Russia is trying to keep the balance of forces on the ground in its favour by preventing Ukrainian forces from attaining greater firing power with, for example, the HIMARS missile systems.

At the same time, as the recently concluded grain deal suggests, Moscow is working to open avenues to alleviate economic strains, but without sacrificing too much strategically. Ukraine, for its part, appears set on frustrating Russian advances outside the Donbas while making it more costly for Russia to remain in that region and its vicinity. More generally, it wants to prevent Russia from having any stable footing in Ukraine.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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