With the endpoint nearing a landmark deal that would allow Ukraine's grain shipments through Russia's naval blockade, the United Nations says it is racing to bridge differences to extend the agreement, which has helped reduce global food shortages and limited price increases.
The United Nations is “doing everything possible” to ensure the continuation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which was brokered with Turkey, Martin Griffiths, the global body's humanitarian chief, told the Security Council on Friday, ahead of the deal's expiration.
Russia and Ukraine are at loggerheads over how long it will take to extend the deal, which is set to expire late Saturday. Moscow said it would agree to an extension of only 60 days as its own exports of food and fertilizer were hampered by sanctions. Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations have pushed for a 120-day extension, in line with an initial agreement in July and with a subsequent extension in November.
The deal allows ships carrying grain and fertilizer from Ukraine passage safely into Turkish waters, where they are inspected by a joint team of Turkish, UN, Ukrainian and Russian officials.
Its signing represents a rare diplomatic breakthrough between Ukraine and Russia since the war began last year, but Moscow has held the deal hostage at various points. In late October, the Kremlin abruptly suspended its participation in the agreement following an attack on its warships in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, but rejoined it a few days later.
At that time, President Vladimir V. Putin said, “Russia has the right to leave this agreement if these guarantees from Ukraine are violated.”
On Friday, Putin's isolation from the West deepened with the announcement by the International Criminal Court that they had charged him with war crimes and issued a warrant for his arrest. That drew a defiant response from the Kremlin, which vowed not to cooperate with it.
In a sign of the Kremlin's determination to continue business as usual, Russian state media broadcast images of Putin visiting Crimea on Saturday for ceremonies marking the ninth anniversary of Russia's annexation of the peninsula. Russia's seizure of Crimea in 2014, condemned by Ukraine and the international community as illegal, was in many ways a precursor to Moscow's massive invasion of Ukraine last year.
Putin also issued more draconian sentences intended to silence critics of the war in Russia, signed law on Saturday the criminalized spoke out against anyone fighting in Ukraine, including volunteers and others who “facilitate the mission of the Russian Armed Forces”. The new law is widely seen as aimed at protecting fighters including those from the private military company Wagner, which has been at the forefront of Russia's bloody months-long attempt to seize the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
This step was made when Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of Wagner, he said on the Telegram messaging app that his group plans to enlist some 30,000 new fighters by mid-May, from recruiting centers set up in dozens of cities. Mr Prigozhin offered no evidence to support his claim, which comes after weeks of complaints that the Russian Ministry of Defense was denying his group critical support, including ammunition.
On Monday, Putin is scheduled to host China's supreme leader, Xi Jinping, to begin a state visit. Xi's trip, whose government has not commented on the ICC warrant, highlighted how Russia has maintained ties with powerful allies that have dampened the effects of Western isolation and diplomatic sanctions.
American officials say that China has refrained from supplying Russia with military aid for use in Ukraine. President Biden has emphasized to Xi that such a move would have “serious consequences” for US-China relations, Biden administration officials said.
Top US military officials held a phone call Friday with Ukrainian leaders including President Volodymyr Zelensky, who offered “an update on battlefield conditions and expressed appreciation for the continued provision of US security assistance,” according to a summary of the White House call.
The Biden administration is also strongly in favor of extending the grain deal, which said the UN has allowed the export of more than 23 million tons of grain, stabilized food prices and reduced shortages.
“It saves lives,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the UN, to the Security Council on Friday. “The world needs this grain. It has to flow freely.”
Ukraine is a leading exporter of wheat, barley, corn and sunflowers, but its shipments plummeted after the war began. Exports from Russia, another major supplier, also fell.
Prime Minister of Ukraine, Denys Shmyhal, on Friday called the Russian insistence in the short term to deal with “manipulating to further blackmail and inflame the global food crisis.”
Talks on extending the deal started Monday in Geneva. Agreement on the previous extension, in November, was reached with days to go.
Grain is shipped via the Black Sea, where Russia's powerful naval fleet faces three NATO members — Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria — which share the coast. This week, an American surveillance drone was downed in the sea after being hit by a Russian fighter jet, US officials said. It was the first known physical contact between the Russian and American militaries since the war began.
In recent months, Russian warships in the Black Sea have fired cruise missiles at Ukrainian targets sometimes hundreds of miles away, hitting cities and damaging the country's energy infrastructure.
Ivan Nechepurenko reporting contribution.