Farmers harvest a wheat field in the Ukrainian Kharkiv region amid Russian invasion of Ukraine. AFP
Russia and Ukraine signed a landmark deal on Friday to reopen Ukrainian Black Sea ports for grain exports, raising hopes that an international food crisis aggravated by the Russian invasion can be eased.
The accord crowned two months of talks brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, a Nato member that has good relations with both Russia and Ukraine and controls the straits leading into the Black Sea.
Speaking at the signing ceremony in Istanbul, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the deal opens the way to significant volumes of commercial food exports from three key Ukrainian ports â€” Odesa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny.
â€œToday, there is a beacon on the Black Sea. A beacon of hope..., possibility...and relief in a world that needs it more than ever,â€ Guterres told the gathering.
But fighting raged on unabated in Ukraineâ€™s east and, underlining the enmity and mistrust driving the worst conflict in Europe since World War Two, Russian and Ukrainian representatives declined to sit at the same table and avoided shaking hands at the ceremony.
A blockade of Ukrainian ports by Russiaâ€™s Black Sea fleet, trapping tens of millions of tonnes of grain in silos and stranding many ships, has worsened global supply chain bottlenecks and, along with sweeping Western sanctions, stoked galloping inflation in food and energy prices around the world.
Moscow has denied responsibility for the worsening food crisis, blaming instead sanctions for slowing its own food and fertilizer exports and Ukraine for mining the approaches to its Black Sea ports.
A UN official said a separate pact signed on Friday would smooth such Russian exports and that the United Nations welcomed US and European Union clarifications that their sanctions would not apply to their shipment.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Western nations would be watching closely to ensure the deal did not put Ukraine at risk of being further invaded by Russia.
â€œThe G7 is working closely with partners like Turkey and others to ensure that we can get that grain out of Ukraine and to places around the world where itâ€™s needed without putting at risk Ukraineâ€™s sovereignty and protection,â€ Trudeau said.
Speaking in Istanbul, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow would not seek to take advantage of the de-mining of Ukraineâ€™s ports.
â€œRussia has taken on the obligations that are clearly spelled out in this document. We will not take advantage of the fact that the ports will be cleared and opened,â€ Shoigu said on the Rossiya-24 state TV channel.
Ukraineâ€™s infrastructure minister Oleksandr Kubrakov also said that Kyiv does not see a risk of Russian ships attacking through Ukrainian ports.
Senior UN officials, briefing reporters on Friday, said the deal was expected to be fully operational in a few weeks and would restore grain shipments from the three reopened ports to pre-war levels of 5 million tonnes a month.
Safe passage into and out of the ports would be guaranteed in what one official called a â€œde facto ceasefireâ€ for the ships and facilities covered, they said, although the word â€œceasefireâ€ was not in the agreement text.
Though Ukraine has mined nearby offshore areas as part of its defences against Russiaâ€™s five-month-old invasion, Ukrainian pilots would guide ships along safe channels in its territorial waters, they said.
Monitored by a Joint Coordination Center based in Istanbul, the ships would then transit the Black Sea to Turkeyâ€™s Bosphorus strait and proceed to world markets, UN officials said.