ISTANBUL: Russia and Ukraine on Friday signed a landmark deal with the United Nations and Turkey on resuming grain shipments that could ease a global food crisis in which millions face hunger.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov each signed separate but identical agreements with UN and Turkish officials on reopening blocked Black Sea delivery routes, at a ceremony witnessed by AFP.
Ukrainian officials had said earlier they did not want to put their names on the same document as the Russians because of the five-month war. The ministers carefully avoided sitting at the same table and did not shake hands at the event at the lavish Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the pact, which would help ease a global food crisis, would be implemented by joint coordination centre based in Istanbul.
"Today, there is a beacon on the Black Sea. A beacon of hope (and) possibility ... and relief in a world that needs it more than ever," said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, calling on Russia and Ukraine to fully implement the accord.
The agreement is going ahead even as Russian forces launch deadly artillery barrages over eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak cautioned that Russian breaches of the deal and incursions around Ukraine’s ports would be met with “an immediate military response”.
Russia has reportedly sent combine harvesters from Crimea to two Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine to cover a shortage of equipment needed to bring in the crop, a representative of a Russian-installed local administration told Reuters.
Ukraine has accused Russia, the world’s largest wheat exporter, of stealing grain from territories that Russia’s army has seized. Moscow denies this.
The grain deal drew scepticism from Ukrainian farmers under pressure in the war-battered south to shift stores from rapidly filling silos and with local prices tanking.
“It gives some hope but you can’t believe what the Russians say,” said Mykola Zaverukha, a farmer with 13,000 tonnes of grain waiting for export.
“Russia is unreliable, they have shown themselves to be year after year,” he told AFP in the southern Mykolaiv region.
The Kremlin said, meanwhile, that it was “very important” for the parties to arrive at an understanding.
“It is very important to unblock supplies of fertilisers, foodstuffs and grain to the world markets,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Despite hopes for a breakthrough, Russian forces pursued a relentless shelling campaign in the eastern Donetsk region, which has been the focus of Russia’s campaign in recent months.
“Five killed and 10 wounded in the region in the last 24 hours,” the Ukrainian presidency announced on Friday.
In the Donetsk village of Chasiv Yar, which was hit by a strike on July 10 that killed more than 45 people, a 64-year-old woman gathered apricots near the wreckage.
“There is nothing anymore. The officials have left. We have to fend for ourselves to stay alive,” said Lyudmila, who only gave her first name.
In the south, Ukraine said Russian forces were shelling villages along the frontline in the Kherson area, where Kyiv’s army is trying to claw back Moscow-occupied territory.
The five-month war is being fought across one of Europe’s most fertile regions by two of the world’s biggest grain producers.
Up to 25 million tonnes of wheat and other grain have been blocked in Ukrainian ports by Russian warships and landmines Kyiv has laid to avert a feared amphibious assault.
Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko told AFP late Thursday that Kyiv would only accept solutions that guarantee the security of its southern regions, the position of its forces in the Black Sea and the safe export of agricultural products.
Under the terms of the elusive accord, Ukraine would export grain through the Black Sea ports of Odessa, Pivdennyi and Chornomorsk, with the hope of expanding the offering over time, a Ukrainian lawmaker Rustem Umerov told reporters Thursday.
The United States welcomed the deal but urged Russia to carry it out in good faith.
“We should never have been in this position in the first place,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price, accusing Russia of “weaponising” food.
The parties were convening in Istanbul one day after Russia’s restart of the Nord Stream gas pipeline eased concerns in Europe of a permanent shut off after 10 days of repairs.
Yet even the resumption of 40% of supplies would be insufficient to ward off energy shortages in Europe this winter, experts warned.
Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24 and the war has left thousands dead and forced millions to flee their homes but the military toll on both sides has remained speculative at best.
Some 15,000 Russians have died in the invasion, US and British spy chiefs said, as they assessed that President Vladimir Putin was suffering far greater losses than expected.
Britain became the latest country Thursday to announce it is re-upping military supplies with Ukraine artillery, “hundreds of drones and hundreds more anti-tank weapons” for Ukraine in the coming weeks.
But Russia has warned about Western arms deliveries and said they mean Moscow’s military aims are expanding beyond the eastern war-battered Donbas.