BRUSSELS — After three months of talks that often seemed doomed, Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement on Friday to free more than 20 million tons of grain stuck in Ukraine’s blockaded Black Sea ports, a deal with global implications for bringing down high food prices and alleviating shortages and a mounting hunger crisis.
Senior United Nations officials said that the first shipments out of Odesa and neighboring ports were only weeks away and could quickly bring five million tons of Ukrainian food to the world market each month, freeing up storage space for Ukraine’s fresh harvests. The difference might be felt most powerfully in the drought-stricken Horn of Africa, which relies heavily on Ukrainian and Russian grain.
The breakthrough, brokered with the help of the United Nations and Turkey, is the most significant compromise between the warring nations since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, but it moves them no closer to peace. While government ministers signed the agreement in an ornate room in Istanbul, with their countries’ flags lined up together, a few hundred miles away their troops continued to kill and maim each other.
“This agreement did not come easy,” António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, said at the signing ceremony, calling the deal a “beacon in the Black Sea.”
But Stephen E. Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University, warned that it would be difficult to speedily deliver food to where it is most needed. The mechanics of transporting grain through the Black Sea under wartime conditions with little or no trust between the warring sides are extremely complex.
“It will not move quickly,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether the deal works as planned. With each side deeply suspicious of the other, there will be plenty of chances for the agreement to break down.
In Istanbul, Sergei K. Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, repeated Russia’s pledge not to use the process of grain exports from Ukraine to its military advantage. “We have made this commitment,” he said.
With fighting still raging in eastern and southern Ukraine, the White House on Friday announced $270 million in weaponry and other aid to Ukraine, bringing the total since the war began to about $7 billion. The latest batch includes HIMARS rocket launchers and ammunition, and ammunition for howitzers and drones.
President Vladimir V. Putin’s assault on Ukraine and the West’s sanctions against Russia have had worldwide economic repercussions, impeding trade, contributing to inflation, threatening recession and upending markets, particularly for energy.
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
But Russia’s blockade of Odesa and other ports has produced some of the gravest global consequences, undermining a global food distribution network that was already strained by poor harvests, drought, pandemic-related disruptions and climate change. Western officials accused Mr. Putin of using hunger as leverage for sanctions relief.
Ukraine is one of the world’s breadbaskets, a leading exporter of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower, but its shipments plummeted after the war began. Exports from Russia, another major supplier, fell as well.
Prices for food staples on world markets soared — wheat cost about 50 percent more in May than it did in February. Prices have since fallen back to prewar levels, but those levels were high, after climbing steadily in the year and a half before the invasion, and stockpiles are low because of the coronavirus pandemic. The United Nations warned of potential famine and political unrest.
“The lifting of these blockades will go some way in easing the extreme hunger that over 18 million people in East Africa are facing, with 3 million already facing catastrophic hunger conditions,” Shashwat Saraf, the International Rescue Committee’s East Africa Emergency Director said in a statement.
The deal struck in Istanbul lays out a logistically complex operation to export Ukrainian grain through Turkey, and also offers U.N. assurances to help Russia export its own grain and fertilizer.
Kyiv and Moscow have agreed on very little during the war; peace talks went nowhere, and have been set aside for now. The two sides have made several prisoner exchanges and have occasionally agreed on humanitarian evacuations from devastated cities, though always after false starts and mutual accusations of bad faith.
But Friday’s pact was the first time that representatives from the warring countries have publicly signed an agreement.
“It’s a big step forward,” Mr. Flynn said, crediting the Turks with an “elegant approach.”
The White House welcomed the deal, but with a dose of skepticism. Success “is going to depend on Russia’s compliance with this arrangement and actually implementing its commitments,” said John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council.
“Russia’s word is never good enough on its face,” he added, and the United States is “going to be watching very closely.”
Ukraine and other European countries have cobbled together new transport networks using trains, trucks and river barges, raising exports of Ukrainian food to nearly 3 million tons monthly — still far below prewar levels, but far more than early in the war. Even with the resumption of shipments by sea, it could take up to four months to clear the grain backlog.
The Istanbul agreement will expire after 120 days, officials said, but could be renewed on a rolling basis.
It contains an express commitment that the civilian ships involved, as well as the port facilities used for the operations, will not be attacked, but that could be a tenuous guarantee, and the ships, operating in a war zone, could still be at risk.
There will be no broader maritime cease-fire, and a senior U.N. official said that the Russians did not pledge not to attack the parts of the Ukrainian ports that are not directly used for the grain exports.
Under the terms of the deal, Ukrainian captains will steer the vessels with grain out of Odesa and neighboring ports of Chernomorsk and Yuzhne through safe passages mapped by the Ukrainian Navy, to avoid the mines Ukraine has laid to thwart a feared Russian amphibious assault.
A joint command center with Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and U.N. officials will be set up in Istanbul as of Saturday, the U.N. officials said. Teams from all three countries and the United Nations will jointly inspect the vessels in Turkish ports, both as they arrive from Ukraine and they depart, primarily to ensure that they are not carrying weapons back to Ukraine after unloading their grain.
Mr. Guterres praised Ukraine, Russia and Turkey for working together to secure the breakthrough.
“Since the war started, I have been highlighting that there is no solution to the global food crisis without ensuring full global access to Ukraine’s food products and Russian food and fertilizer,” he said. “Today we took important steps to achieve this objective. But it has been a long road.”
The breakthrough is a coup for Mr. Guterres as well as Mr. Erdogan, who has positioned himself as a mediator, on good terms with Mr. Putin and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.
The deal seemed unlikely just two weeks ago, after a series of intense meetings, with the two sides questioning each other’s motives and blaming each other for the stalemate.
An early proposal called for removing mines, which Ukraine objected to, and having an international flotilla to escort the grain ships. A key step forward came when Ukraine agreed instead to have its own captains steer the ships on the first leg of their journeys, and the idea of a military escort was dropped. That made it more of civilian operation, easing concerns that it could trigger a hostile episode.
Getting Russia on board took longer, officials said. It required the United Nations convincing private-sector shipping and insurance companies that they could transport Russian foods and fertilizers, which are not directly barred by Western sanctions, without running afoul of other sanctions.
The last piece of the puzzle came on Thursday, when the European Union published legally binding clarifications that banks, insurers and other firms were permitted to participate in the export of Russian grains and fertilizers, and that its sanctions did not affect the key Russian port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. Senior U.N. officials said that these assurances were sufficient to convince the private sector to re-engage with Russia’s grain trade.
“Today we have all the prerequisites and all the solutions for this process to be started in the coming days,” Mr. Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, who signed the agreement in Istanbul, told reporters afterward.
Global grain markets reacted immediately to news of the deal. The price of wheat futures fell by more than 5 percent on Friday to around $760 per bushel.
Reporting was contributed by Anton Troianovski, Valerie Hopkins, Dan Bilefsky, Joe Rennison and Patricia Cohen.