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[ANALYSIS] Finding inspiration from UNIFIL to solve Ukrainian grain shipments

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Fatih Yurtsever*

Russia claims that the commitments made in the Black Sea Grain Initiative to remove obstacles to the export of Russian grain and fertilizer under the terms of the agreement signed on July 22, 2022 between Russia and the UN have not been fulfilled. Russia has therefore announced that it is suspending its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative until these commitments are met and, as of July 18 has suspended its security guarantees for the safety of merchant ships carrying grain from the Ukrainian ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhne. In other words, Russia has announced that it will continue its naval blockade of Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea as it did before the implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Under these circumstances, to prevent a new food crisis in the world and to avoid an undesirable increase in food prices, alternative solutions for transporting Ukrainian grain to world markets should be developed under the leadership of the UN.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 led to a more than four-month-long blockade by Russian warships of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. The Black Sea Grain Initiative, brokered by Turkey and the United Nations and signed by Russia and Ukraine in July 2022, established a secure corridor allowing grain exports from the Ukrainian ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhne/Pivdennyi. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, Ukraine accounts for a significant share of the global export market for various agricultural products. Specifically, Ukraine contributes 46 percent of global sunflower oil exports, 17 percent of barley, 12 percent of corn and 9 percent of wheat. As one of the world’s leading grain producers, Ukraine’s participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative has significantly mitigated the global food crisis triggered by the ongoing war in Ukraine.

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the Russian Federation and the United Nations Secretariat was signed on July 22, 2022 for the duration of three years, along with the Black Sea grain deal. The MoU was aimed at providing the world market with unimpeded access to Russian food products and fertilizers. This includes impediments that may arise in the finance, insurance or logistics sectors. However, concerns regarding the corresponding MoU on Russian food and fertilizer exports are not being addressed, according to Russia.

The Russian side has demanded that Ukraine allow Russian ammonia exports through the Tolyatti-Odesa ammonia pipeline, which were suspended on Feb. 24, 2022. Russia has occasionally raised the issue that continuing the Black Sea grain deal requires fulfilling commitments made in the UN-Russia MoU to facilitate the export of Russian grain and fertilizer. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin highlighted the need for improved bank payments, transport logistics, insurance and ammonia supplies transported via the Tolyatti-Odessa pipeline. The Ukrainian side has not yet allowed a resumption of the flow of ammonia through the pipeline, and the sabotage that led to an explosion on the pipeline’s section passing through Kharkiv in June has taken the debate to a new level. Russia and Ukraine blame each other for the sabotage. It will take between one and three months to repair the pipeline. Since the Kharkiv region is under Ukrainian control, Ukraine has to allow Russian teams to enter the region.

According to Section H of the agreement, the Black Sea Grain Initiative was set to remain in effect for 120 days following the date of signature by all involved parties. The initiative can be automatically extended for an additional 120-day period unless one of the parties indicates its intention to terminate or modify the agreement. Russia has suspended its participation in the Black Sea Grain Deal and informed Turkey on Tuesday about the disbanding of the Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul, which was set up to coordinate merchant vessels carrying Ukrainian grain. Russia has also lifted security guarantees for cargo ships.

“The implementation of grain agreements has been terminated,” the Russian foreign ministry said after Russia’s top diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, spoke to his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan.

At this stage, alternative solutions need to be discussed, led by the UN, to get Ukrainian grain to international markets. The UN could devise a solution ensuring the continuous export of Ukrainian grain to global markets. Addressing this issue is of worldwide importance and directly impacts food prices. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) naval operation in the eastern Mediterranean, conducted off Lebanon’s coast, could serve as a viable model for such a solution.

The UNIFIL Maritime Task Force (MTF), active since October 2006, has aided the Lebanese Navy by overseeing territorial waters, safeguarding the coastline and impeding unauthorized arms entry into Lebanon. The MTF’s deployment following the July-August 2006 Lebanon-Israel conflict was instrumental in persuading Israel to lift its naval blockade. If the UN General Assembly passes a resolution, a new naval task force could be established in the Black Sea under Turkey’s command. Comprising warships from countries such as Brazil and India, which Russia does not object to, the force would work to prevent the entry of illegal arms into Ukrainian ports. This would help invalidate Russia’s blockade and ensure the safe navigation of grain-carrying ships in the Black Sea.

A pressing question arises regarding the feasibility of such an operation, given that Turkey has closed the straits to warship passage in compliance with the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits due to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Recognizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “war,” Turkey closed the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to Russian and Ukrainian warships, invoking Article 19 of the convention, under which warships belonging to belligerent powers may not pass through the straits. Article 19 does not give Turkey the right to close the straits to all warships, which would require the invocation of Article 21. Therefore, there is no impediment under the Montreux Convention for the MTF using the straits because Article 21 hasn’t been invoked.

The Montreux Convention has significance for regulating transit and navigation in the straits and ensuring the security of Turkey and the Black Sea littoral nations. Consequently, hindering Ukraine’s grain exports poses a risk to its economic stability as well as the food security of African nations. In keeping with the spirit of the Montreux Convention, Turkey should advocate the formation of a UN-led naval task force in the Black Sea. By adhering to the convention’s specified tonnage and day limitations for foreign warships, this task force can help bolster regional security.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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