What's In Blue

Posted Sun 14 May 2023

Ukraine: Briefing on Humanitarian Developments

Tomorrow morning (15 May), 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. 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 May. The initiative was last renewed in March 2023 for a period of 60 days. Russia has threatened to not renew the initiative, citing a lack of progress in resolving five barriers obstructing the export of Russian agricultural products to international markets.

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. 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.

Ukraine has expressed concern that Russia is intentionally obstructing navigation in the Black Sea, causing delays in the shipment of Ukrainian foodstuffs. On 11 April, the UN issued a note to correspondents stating that the Joint Coordination Centre (JCC), which is responsible for facilitating the BSGI, has been unable to conduct vessel inspections as the parties failed to reach an agreement on “operational priorities”. This issue has persisted, with the rate of inspection dropping significantly in May.

Secretary-General António Guterres held a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on 24 April to discuss the BSGI and the operational challenges encountered by the JCC. During the meeting, Guterres presented Lavrov with a letter outlining a proposed plan to improve, extend, and expand the BSGI, taking into account the positions recently expressed by the parties and the risks associated with global food insecurity. A similar letter was reportedly sent to Ukraine and Türkiye, the two other signatories to the agreement.

On 10 and 11 May, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin met with senior officials from Türkiye, Ukraine, and the UN in Istanbul to discuss the future of the BSGI. According to an 11 May UN note to correspondents, the parties discussed Guterres’ proposals regarding “the resumption of the Togliatti-Odesa ammonia pipeline, the longer extension of the deal, improvements at the [JCC] for stable operations and exports”, among other issues. However, the meeting ended without an agreement.

In a 12 May interview, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), Cindy McCain, who assumed the post in March, said that she was “not confident” that Russia would agree to extend the initiative, adding that the prospects are “50-50 right now”. However, Türkiye’s Defence Ministry reportedly issued a statement on the same day saying that the parties “are approaching an agreement on an extension of the grain agreement period”. Türkiye is conducting its presidential elections today (14 May).

At tomorrow’s briefing, Griffiths is expected to reiterate the importance of the BSGI for global food security. As at 8 May, approximately 30 million metric tons of grain and foodstuffs have been exported as part of the BSGI, according to the JCC. This includes nearly 600,000 metric tons of grain shipped through the WFP, as part of its humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Yemen. The exports have significantly contributed to a decrease in global food prices and the stabilisation of commodity markets, according to the UN.

Griffiths is also 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. According to a 3 May flash update by OCHA, “a grave humanitarian situation is rapidly unfolding in the area surrounding” the city of Marinka in the Donetsk region. OCHA and humanitarian partners continue to provide assistance to frontline communities despite the “immense challenges imposed by the security situation”.

Most Council members are expected to encourage all parties involved to renew the BSGI. Some members may criticise Moscow for threatening to not extend the agreement 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.

Russia is likely to question whether the BSGI has positive effects on global food prices. Moscow has repeatedly argued that the initiative is primarily benefitting developed countries—a claim that many Council members are expected to reject. According to a 9 March report released by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) titled “A Trade Hope: The Impact of the [BSGI]”, developing countries have received the largest share of food exports.

Some members—including China and Russia—are likely to express their objection to the use of unilateral economic sanctions. Russia has argued that sanctions have hindered the export of Russian agricultural products. On the other hand, the US and European Council members may highlight that Russian food and fertiliser have been exempted from sanctions. At a 12 May press briefing, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric said that shipping and insurance providers’ reluctance continues to pose a challenge to Russian food and fertiliser exports, despite the humanitarian exemptions provided by Western sanctions.

Tomorrow’s briefing will be the first of two scheduled meetings on Ukraine this week. On Thursday (18 May), the Council is expected to hold a briefing under the “Threats to international peace and security” agenda item. Russia requested the meeting to discuss the issue of Western weapons supplies to Ukraine.

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