Russia’s foreign minister has denied his country is responsible for the worldwide surge in food prices following its invasion of Ukraine as shipping companies continue to avoid the war-torn nation.
Speaking during his visit to several African nations, Sergei Lavrov dismissed the “so-called food crisis” and accused the US and Europe of causing prices to rise buy implementing “reckless” green policies.
He also claimed countries had been hoarding food during the COVID-19 pandemic, which had contributed to the increase in costs.
“The situation in Ukraine did additionally negatively affect food markets, but not due to the Russian special operation, rather due to the absolutely inadequate reaction of the West, which announced sanctions,” Mr Lavrov told reporters.
The West has repeatedly emphasised that food is exempt from their sanctions on Russia and have blamed Moscow for the global crisis.
Ukraine and Russia are key global suppliers of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil, with fighting in the Black Sea region blamed for pushing up food prices, threatening political stability in developing nations and leading countries to ban some food exports, worsening the crisis.
Last week, a breakthrough deal to provide safe corridors through the Black Sea for trapped grain out of Ukraine was reached.
But, Mr Lavrov said the agreement could have been announced “long, long ago” if not for the “Western stubbornness in insisting they are always right”.
Despite the deal, many shipping companies have steered clear of helping to export the some 20 million tonnes of grain because explosive mines have been drifting into the surrounding waters.
“We have to work very hard to now understand the detail of how this is going to work practically,” said Guy Platten, secretary-general of the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents national shipowners’ associations.
“Can we make sure and guarantee the safety of the crews? What’s going to happen with the mines and the minefields, as well? So lots of uncertainty and unknowns at the moment,” he said.
The complexities of the agreement have set off a slow start by ship owners, but it is only good for 120 days – and the clock began ticking last week.
Over the next four months, it is hoped four or five large bulk carriers will transport grain from the ports per day and deliver them to millions of impoverished people around the world.
Another key element of the pact offers assurances that shipping and insurers carrying Russian grain and fertiliser will not get caught in the wider net of Western sanctions.
But the deal hasn’t been without its difficulties already, with Russian missiles striking Ukraine’s port of Odesa – one of those included in the agreement – just hours after the pact was signed.
The pact stipulates that Russia and Ukraine will provide “maximum assurances” for ships that brave the journey through the Black Sea to the Ukrainian ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhne.
Mr Lavrov added that Russian and Turkish ships will escort vessels that have been trapped in Ukrainian ports through the Black Sea once Ukraine demines its coastline.
Shipowners, charterers and insurance firms are seeking to understand how the deal will play out in real time.
“I think it’s going to come (down) to the position of the marine insurers that provide war risk and how much they are going to be adding in additional charges for vessels to go into that area,” said Michelle Wiese Bockmann, shipping and commodities analyst at global shipping news publication Lloyd’s List.
Ms Bockmann said vessels carrying this kind of load typically have between 20 to 25 seafarers on board.
“You can’t risk those lives without something concrete and acceptable to the shipowners and to their charterers to move grain,” she said.
Meanwhile, Frederick Kenney, director, legal and external affairs at International Maritime Organization has expressed his confidence in the deal that was signed – as he spoke from the opening of the centre which will oversee the grain exports in Istanbul.
“I am confident that this will be a successful initiative,” he said on Wednesday.
“All parties here have expressed their commitments to making this initiative a reality and getting it operational and I think that is demonstrated by the fact that all parties have had senior persons arrive here in extremely short notice.”
Getting wheat and other food out is critical to farmers in Ukraine, who are running out of storage capacity as they harvest their fields.
Some places facing food shortages – and even famine
Those grains are vital to millions of people in Africa, parts of the Middle East and South Asia, who are already facing food shortages and, in some cases, famine.
Weeks ago, African leaders visited Moscow to express their food concerns but many have not openly criticised Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
During his tour, Mr Lavrov sought to reassure leaders concerned about a spike in grain prices and justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which he called a “threat” on his country’s border.
He also claimed most countries do not support Western sanctions on Russia, calling it “basically evident from the fact that, except for two or three countries, no one in Africa, Asia or Latin America” has joined them.
Ethiopia’s government made no public comment about the war in Ukraine or the food crisis during Mr Lavrov’s visit, with state media reporting only that Russia and Ethiopia had agreed to strengthen economic ties.
How long will it take for ports to be operational?
With the need for grain not diminishing, Ukrainian officials have expressed hope that exports could resume from one of the ports within days.
But they have also warned it could take two weeks for all three ports to be operational.
Since the war began in late February, 22 bulk carriers and cargo ships have been stuck at the ports, data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence shows.
Around 13 are docked at Chornomorsk, six in Odesa and three at Yuzhne.
For ships heading to the ports, smaller Ukrainian pilot boats will guide the vessels through approved corridors.
Once they reach their destination, they will be filled with tens of thousands of tonnes of grain before departing back to the Bosporus Strait, where they will be inspected for weapons by officials from Ukraine, Russia, the United Nations and Turkey.