Ukraine: Briefing on Humanitarian Developments
Tomorrow afternoon (17 March), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing on the situation in Ukraine. The meeting was requested by Ecuador and France, the co-penholders on humanitarian issues in Ukraine. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths is expected to brief via videoconference (VTC). Ukraine is expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.
Tomorrow’s meeting will take place amid ongoing diplomatic efforts aimed at securing the renewal of the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI), which is set to expire on 18 March. The initiative was last renewed in November 2022 for a period of 120 days and was subject to an automatic extension for the same period, unless one of the parties notified the other of the intent to terminate or modify the agreement. On Monday (13 March), Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin announced that Russia would only consent to a 60-day extension. The announcement followed discussions between a high-level Russian delegation and the two leading UN officials who negotiated the BSGI on behalf of Secretary-General António Guterres—Griffiths and UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan.
When the BSGI was first signed in July 2022, Russia agreed to the initiative as part of a package deal that included a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the UN’s scope of engagement to facilitate unimpeded exports of Russian food products and fertilisers to global markets. Moscow has claimed that the MoU has not been effectively implemented, arguing that sanctions have created barriers to these exports. Russia has sought to reconnect its agricultural bank to the SWIFT payment system and to unblock the Tolyatti-Odesa ammonia pipeline, which has been inoperative following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
On 14 March, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric acknowledged that while meaningful progress has been made in eliminating barriers to Russian food and fertiliser exports, “some obstacles remain, notably with regard to payment systems”. During a 13 March press briefing, US Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price rejected Moscow’s assertions on the implementation of the MoU, stating that “Russia’s exports of food and fertilizer are back up to pre-war levels”. Price emphasised that Russian food and fertiliser exports are exempt from sanctions, adding that the US government has “gone to extraordinary lengths” to convey to the private sector and governments that its sanctions “have carve-outs”.
Ukraine has reproached Russia for intentionally hampering food exports under the BSGI. In a 15 February letter to the Security Council (S/2023/110), Ukraine accused Russia of obstructing the BSGI by delaying the inspection of ships heading to and from Ukraine through the Bosporus Strait, resulting “in a systematic decrease of the freight turnover within the Grain initiative”.
At tomorrow’s briefing, Griffiths is expected to provide an overview of the humanitarian situation in Ukraine. He may note that ongoing hostilities in the eastern Donetsk region continue to leave frontline communities in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. In a 10 March statement, Dujarric noted that, since the outset of 2023, the UN and its humanitarian partners have dispatched 26 inter-agency convoys to communities situated near the frontline, supporting approximately 230,000 men, women, and children. On 10 March, a three-truck aid convoy from UN agencies arrived in Chasiv Yar—a Ukrainian town located ten kilometres west of the city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, which has seen intense fighting in recent months. Additionally, today (16 March), an inter-agency convoy provided crucial supplies to two communities near the frontline town of Kupiansk, located in the Kharkiv region.
Griffiths is also likely to emphasise the positive effects of the BSGI and the MoU on global food security. He may highlight the key findings of a report released by UNCTAD on 9 March titled “A Trade Hope: The Impact of the [BSGI]”, which notes that, as at 5 March, over 23 million tons of grain had been exported under the initiative, with developing countries receiving the largest share of food exports. Furthermore, the BSGI has contributed to reducing price fluctuations in the global market, with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Food Price Index experiencing a decline for ten consecutive months since peaking in March 2022. Griffiths is not likely to comment on the status of the negotiations to extend the BSGI, although he may reiterate that the UN is doing “everything possible to preserve the integrity” and continuity of the initiative.
Most Council members are expected to encourage all parties involved to renew the BSGI. Some members may criticise Moscow for proposing a 60-day extension and for what they perceive as a deliberate attempt by Russia to hinder the inspection of vessels, causing delays of Ukrainian food shipments under the BSGI. Some members—including China, Brazil, Ghana, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—may stress the importance of ensuring the effective implementation of the MoU.
Several members are expected to condemn Russia for igniting the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and for its attacks on critical infrastructure across the country. These members may reference the 15 March report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, which determined that Russian forces “carried out attacks with explosive weapons in populated areas with an apparent disregard for civilian harm and suffering” and that the Russian missile barrages on Ukraine’s energy-related infrastructure “may amount to crimes against humanity”.
Some Council members are expected to raise the 14 March incident in which two Russian Su-27 aircraft collided with a US unmanned reconnaissance MQ-9 drone over the Black Sea, resulting in the latter being downed in international waters. General James B. Hecker, a US Air Force commander, labelled Russia’s conduct as “unsafe and unprofessional”, stating that the US “will continue to operate in international airspace”. The US summoned Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov on 14 March. Antonov has claimed that the drone “was moving deliberately and provocatively towards Russian territory”. Some Council members may call for de-escalation while emphasising that the incident exemplifies the ever-present risk of escalation.
Tomorrow’s briefing will be the second meeting on Ukraine this week. On Tuesday (14 March), the Council held a briefing on Ukraine under the “Threats to international peace and security” agenda item. Russia requested the meeting to discuss “Russophobia as a factor which complicates the prospects to find a lasting solution”. The Council was briefed by Executive Director of the news agency Rossiya Segodnya Kirill Vyshinsky, Deputy Head of the Ukrainian Trade Union of Law Workers Dmitry Vasilets, and Professor of History at Yale University Timothy Snyder. Vyshinsky and Vasilets accused Ukraine of persecuting Russian speakers and subverting Russian culture, while Snyder argued that the term “Russophobia” is a rhetorical strategy employed by Russia to justify its war of aggression.