Black Sea grain deal in danger as Lavrov butts heads with UN

Black Sea grain deal in danger as Lavrov butts heads with UN
Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov butted heads with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres over the Black Sea grain deal that may collapse next month / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews April 25, 2023

When a female journalist asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov if the Black Sea grain deal was dead as he walked into a meeting of the UN Security Council on April 24 in New York, all he had to say was “nice dress”.

Tensions continue to rise and the point of contention in the first meetings of the UN Security Council that Russia will controversially chair for the next six months is the Black Sea grain deal that was renewed in March.

Ukraine called the UNSC meeting "cynical" and the collective EU ambassadors protested against Russia's chairmanship shortly before the meeting got underway. 

"By organising this debate Russia is trying to portray itself as a defender of the UN charter and multilateralism. Nothing can be further from the truth. It's cynical," said European Union ambassador Olof Skoog just before the UNSC meeting began, surrounded by all 27 EU ambassadors to the UN. "If Russia cares about effective multilateralism, [withdrawing from Ukraine] is the first way to prove it," said Skoog, surrounded by representatives from the 27 EU countries.


Grain deal in danger

First agreed last July in a deal brokered by Turkey and the UN, this has to be renewed every 120 days. However, Russia has complained that the easing of shipping restrictions on its own grain exports has been ignored and the Kremlin has threatened to cancel the deal after only 60 days.

Grain exports are an essential source of income for the cash-strapped Ukraine, but a flood of cheap wheat arriving in the EU via train has caused protests by local farmers and a short-lived ban by some Central European countries trying to protect their agricultural sector.

The grain deal was the focus of a meeting between Lavrov and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres as Russia takes over the UNSC.

During the meeting, Lavrov stated that the world is approaching a more dangerous line than during the Cold War, and the future of international relations depends on the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine.

He called on the United States and Europe to respect other members of the international community and stressed that no one granted the "Western minority" the right to speak on behalf of the entire humankind.

Guterres also emphasised the unprecedented crisis in multilateral relations, with tensions between major powers reaching their “highest ever level.”

"Tensions between major powers are at an historic high. So are the risks of conflict, through misadventure or miscalculation," Guterres said, and called for effective multilateral solutions to prevent and settle conflicts, cope with the economic instability and remove challenges to global norms in the sphere of countering the use of nuclear weapons.

Guterres submitted a letter to Lavrov with proposals for reducing the tension over the Black Sea grain deal that Lavrov said the Russian side would study, adding that the deal is supposed to benefit both Russia and Ukraine.

“It’s about assisting the export of Ukrainian grain from Ukrainian ports and a similar obligation to the Russian Federation in terms of removing the obstacles created by Western countries the Americans, the European Union, the UK  for the export of our grain, primarily wheat, and fertilisers," he said.

One portion of the agreements sets forth a procedure for the export of grain from the Kyiv-controlled ports of Odesa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny. The other portion concerns the access of Russian food to the world market. Moscow has said many times that the second portion of the agreements has in effect not been fulfilled.

"The Secretary General spoke about the efforts he is making to move forward the Russian part of the deal as much as possible. So far, the progress, frankly, is not very noticeable. He communicated his thoughts to us in a letter that outlines ideas on how to proceed. Of course the letter needs to be studied. So far, as I have already said, and I honestly mentioned this to Antonio Guterres, we do not see the desire of Western countries to truly accomplish what is necessary for the successful implementation of the Secretary-General's initiative on a package approach to the export of agricultural products from Ukraine and the Russian Federation," Lavrov said. "But I will say it again: We will study his ideas that were communicated to us on paper."

Russia harvested an all-time record of over 150mn tonnes of grain last year and its silos are full to bursting, as exports have been restricted by Western sanctions on shipping. Russia is currently the biggest producer and exporter of grain in the world and earns significant foreign exchange from the sale of its grain, especially in developing markets. According to Russia’s Agricultural Ministry, some $3.4bn worth of grain is at danger of rotting in storage if export controls are not lifted.

Russia, UN butt heads over "multilateralism" 

The Western alliance supporting Ukraine has been enraged by Russia’s chairmanship of the UNSC, which some have dubbed a “terrorist state.” Lavrov used his first meeting to strike back at those criticisms.

"The West has long been uncomfortable negotiating in universal formats such as the United Nations," he said, adding that to substantiate its course towards undermining multilateralism it introduced the "idea of democracies against autocracy."

Along with summits for democracy, whose participants are selected by the "self-proclaimed hegemon, it is establishing other clubs for the chosen, which act as a workaround to the United Nations," he said.  

They are "devised to undermine talks on relevant topics under the United Nations’ auspices, to impose non-consensus concepts and solutions that serve the West." "First, they negotiate something … with a few participants and then present these agreements as the position of the international community,” he added.

On Ukraine, Lavrov rolled out the same Nazi tropes the Kremlin has repeated since the start of the war.

“The Ukrainian issue cannot be considered in isolation from the geopolitical context. This is not about Ukraine at all but about how international relations will be built in the future: via a solid consensus based on a balance of interests or via the aggressive and explosive promotion of [the West’s] hegemony,” he said. "It is obvious to any impartial person that the Nazi regime in Kyiv cannot be seen as representing the residents of the territories that refused to recognise the outcome of the bloody state coup in February 2014 and against whom the coup plotters unleashed a war against."