Russia Could Accept 60-Day Extension of Grain Deal

The Kremlin is holding out for changes to the arrangement.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin, right, leaves the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 13, 2023.
Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin, right, leaves the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 13, 2023.
Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP

GENEVA (AP) — A Russian delegation at talks with senior U.N. officials said Monday that Moscow is ready to accept an extension to a grain export deal that has helped bring down global food prices amid the war in Ukraine — but only for 60 days as the Kremlin holds out for changes to how the arrangement is working.

The United Nations said it "notes" the Russian announcement and reaffirmed its support for the agreement struck in July as "part of the global response to the most severe cost-of-living crisis in a generation."

The U.N. and Turkey brokered the deal between the warring countries that allows Ukraine — one of the world's key breadbaskets — to ship food and fertilizer from three of its Black Sea ports.

The 120-day agreement was renewed last November. That extension expires on Saturday, and another 120-day extension was on the table.

Ukraine charged that the Russian proposal to extend it only for 60 days goes against the deal, although the language of the agreement allows the parties to roll it over or "modify" it — as Russia did Monday.

The noncommittal U.N. response betrayed the world body's inability to force hands. Russia can largely do what it wants to abide by or reject the deal, leaving the issue dangling for countries in the developing world, which benefit most.

"The U.N. Secretary-General has confirmed that the U.N. will do everything possible to preserve the integrity of the Black Sea Grain Initiative and ensure its continuity," a U.N. statement said. It stressed that the deal had allowed the export of 24 million tons of grain and more than 1,600 trips by vessels through the Black Sea — with more than half the exports destined for developing countries.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price emphasized the need to extend the deal, describing it as a "critical instrument at a critical time."

Moscow has voiced frustration that a parallel agreement has failed to fully open the door to Russian exports of grain and fertilizer through the Black Sea. Still, overall Russian wheat shipments were at or near record highs in November, December and January, increasing 24% over the same three months a year earlier, according to financial data provider Refinitiv.

"The comprehensive and frank conversation has once again confirmed that while the commercial export of Ukrainian products is carried out at a steady pace, bringing considerable profits to Kiev, restrictions on the Russian agricultural exporters are still in place," the Russian delegation said in a statement.

"The sanctions exemptions for food and fertilizers announced by Washington, Brussels and London are essentially inactive," it claimed.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the organization has been working to facilitate Russian agricultural exports, noting that while Russian food and fertilizer haven't been sanctioned, private companies have been cautious to deal with them and "that's why we've asked for letters of comfort from certain governments."

As part of the arrangement, Moscow wants Russian ammonia to be fed through a pipeline across Ukraine to Black Sea ports for possible export. Russian officials also say banking restrictions and high insurance costs have hurt their hopes of exporting fertilizer.

Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov claimed that "Russia's position to extend the deal only for 60 days contradicts the document" envisaging an extension of at least 120 days and said Kyiv was awaiting the official positions of the U.N. and Turkey.

Rebeca Grynspan, secretary-general of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, and Martin Griffiths, head of the U.N. humanitarian agency, hosted a team led by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin at U.N. offices in Geneva.

Ukraine and Russia are key global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other food to countries in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia where millions don't have enough to eat. Russia was also the world's top fertilizer exporter before the war.

The loss of those supplies, after Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, drove global food prices higher and fueled concerns of a hunger crisis in poorer countries.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative involves seaborne checks of cargo by U.N., Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish officials to ensure that only foodstuffs — not weapons — are being transported.

The amount of grain leaving Ukraine has dropped even as the deal works to keep food flowing. Inspections of ships under the grain initiative have fallen sharply since they got rolling in earnest in September, and vessels have been backed up.

Western critics accuse Russia of dragging its heels on inspections. Moscow denies that.

Though the grain deal helped stabilize global food prices, there are still concerns about the impact on prices of possible trade restrictions and weather, especially heat waves, said Michael Puma, director of Columbia University's Center for Climate Systems Research whose research focuses on global food security.

"Big picture, we're pretty fortunate that the weather conditions have allowed … high levels of production across many of the grains," he said.

On the front lines in Ukraine, the eastern city of Bakhmut remained the site of fierce fighting, with Ukrainian forces denying Russian forces the prize of its capture after six months of attrition.

In a video address late Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy noted that "it's very tough in the east, very painful," adding that "we need to destroy the enemy's military might, and we will."

Ukraine's ground forces chief, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi also noted that "the situation around Bakhmut remains difficult," with assault units from Russia's Wagner Group military contractor "advancing from several directions, trying to break through the defenses of our troops and advance to the central districts of the city."

Ukraine's presidential office said that four civilians were killed by the latest shelling, including two in the southern Mykolaiv region. Three more, including a 7-year-old child, were wounded.

On Monday, one civilian was killed in Avdiivka in the Donetsk region, where a school building was destroyed, and five others were wounded by Russian shelling of the village of Kostiantynivka. Another person died in shelling of Znob-Novhorodske in the northern Sumy region that also wounded four people.

Russian officials accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the town of Volnovakha in the Russia-controlled part of the Donetsk region that killed two civilians and wounded two others on Monday.

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