Russia, Ukraine extend grain deal to aid world's poor

FILE - The Eaubonne bulk carrier ship docks in the port of Mombasa, Kenya Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Gideon Maundu, File)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — An unprecedented wartime deal that allowed grain to flow from Ukraine to countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where hunger is a growing threat and high food prices are pushing more people into poverty was extended just before its expiration date, officials said Saturday.

The United Nations and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the extension, but neither confirmed how long it would last. The U.N., Turkey and Ukraine had pushed for 120 days, while Russia said it was willing to agree to 60 days.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov tweeted Saturday that the deal would remain in effect for the longer, four-month period. But Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told Russian news agency Tass that Moscow "agreed to extend the deal for 60 days."

"Any claim that it's prolonged for more than 60 days is either wishful thinking or deliberate manipulation," Russia's deputy ambassador to the U.N., Dmitry Polyansky, said.

Ukraine and Russia are both major global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other affordable food products that developing nations depend on. Two ships carrying more than 96,000 metric tons of corn left Ukrainian ports on Saturday bound for China and Tunisia, according to U.N. data.

This is the second renewal of the agreement that Ukraine and Russia signed with the United Nations and Turkey last July to allow food shipments from three Black Sea ports following a halt to shipping after Russia invaded its neighbor over a year ago on Feb. 24, 2022.

Russia has complained that a separate agreement with the United Nations to overcome obstacles to shipments of its fertilizers that was part of the July package has not produced results.

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the U.N. Security Council on Friday that the United Nations has to recognize it has "no leverage to exempt Russian agricultural export operations from Western sanctions," and therefore Russia would only extend the deal until May 18.

"If Brussels, Washington and London are genuinely interested to continue the export of food from Ukraine through the maritime humanitarian corridor, then they have two months to exempt from their sanctions the entire chain of operations which accompany the Russian agricultural sector," Nebenzia said. "Otherwise, we fail to understand how the package concept of the secretary-general of the United Nations will work through these simple agreements."

The International Rescue Committee expressed disappointment Saturday that the deal is only for 60 days, stressing that countries in East Africa in particular will be entering the lean grain season at the time of its expiration in May, including Somalia which receives over 90% of its grain from Ukraine and is beset by unprecedented drought and on the verge of famine.

Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said in a statement that 25 million metric tonnes (about 28 millions tons) of grain and foodstuffs had moved to 45 countries under the initiative, helping to bring down global food prices and stabilizing markets.

"We remain strongly committed to both agreements, and we urge all sides to redouble their efforts to implement them fully," Dujarric said.

The war in Ukraine sent food prices surging to record highs last year and helped contribute to a global food crisis also tied to the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate factors like drought.

The disruption in shipments of grain needed for staples of diets in places like Egypt, Lebanon and Nigeria exacerbated economic challenges and helped push millions more people into poverty or food insecurity. People in developing countries spend more of their money on basics like food.

The crisis left an estimated 345 million people facing food insecurity, according to the U.N.'s World Food Program.

Food prices have fallen for 11 straight months. But food was already expensive before the war because of droughts from the Americas to the Middle East — most devastating in the Horn of Africa, with thousands dying in Somalia. Poorer nations that depend on imported food priced in dollars are spending more as their currencies weaken.

The agreements also faced setbacks since it was brokered by the U.N. and Turkey: Russia pulled out briefly in November before rejoining and extending the deal. In the past few months, inspections meant to ensure ships only carry grain and not weapons have slowed down significantly.

That has helped lead to backlogs in vessels waiting in the waters of Turkey and a recent drop in the amount of grain getting out of Ukraine.

Ukrainian and some U.S. officials have blamed Russia for the slowdowns, which the country denies.

While fertilizers have been stuck, Russia has exported huge amounts of wheat after a record crop. Figures from financial data provider Refinitiv showed that Russian wheat exports more than doubled to 3.8 million tons in January from the same month a year ago, before the invasion.

Russian wheat shipments were at or near record highs in November, December and January, increasing 24% over the same three months a year earlier, according to Refinitiv. It estimated Russia would export 44 million tons of wheat in 2022-2023.

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Andrew Wilks in Istanbul, Elise Morton in London, Julie Walker in New York and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.