United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday that he is in “intense contact” with Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, the United States and the European Union in an effort to restore Ukrainian grain export as a global food crisis worsens.
“It threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity, followed by malnutrition, mass hunger and famine, in a crisis that could last for years,” Mr Guterres said.
Addressing a food security meeting at the United Nations hosted by US secretary of state Antony Blinken, Mr Guterres appealed to Russia to allow “the safe and secure export of grain stored in Ukrainian ports” and for Russian food and fertilizers to “have full and unrestricted access to world markets.”
Russia’s war in Ukraine has caused global prices for grains, cooking oils, fuel and fertilizer to soar, and Mr Guterres warned this will worsen food, energy and economic crises in poor countries.
“I am hopeful, but there is still a way to go,” said Mr Guterres, who visited Moscow and Kyiv late last month. “The complex security, economic and financial implications require goodwill on all sides.”
Ukraine used to export most of its goods through seaports but since Russia’s February 24th invasion, it has been forced to export by train or via its small Danube River ports.
UN food chief David Beasley appealed to Russian president Vladimir Putin: “If you have any heart at all, please open these ports.” Mr Beasley heads the World Food Programme, which feeds some 125 million people and buys 50 per cent of its grain from Ukraine.
“This is not just about Ukraine. This is about the poorest of the poor who are on the brink of starvation as we speak,” Mr Beasley said.
Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies. Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn, barley, sunflower oil and rapeseed oil, while Russia and Belarus – which has backed Moscow in its war in Ukraine – account for more than 40 per cent of global exports of potash, a crop nutrient.
Mr Blinken said Russia must be compelled to create corridors so that food and other vital supplies can safely leave Ukraine by land or sea. “There are an estimated 22 million tons of grain sitting in silos in Ukraine right now. Food that could immediately go toward helping those in need if it can simply get out of the country,” Mr Blinken said.
The United Nations has said 36 countries count on Russia and Ukraine for more than half of their wheat imports, including some of the poorest and most vulnerable in the world, including Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mr Guterres spoke with Russia’s first deputy prime minister Andrei Belousov on Tuesday about Russian exports of fertilizers and grains, said Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia.
“The discussions, as far as I know, went well and positive,” Mr Nebenzia told reporters on Wednesday, but he signaled that Ukrainian access to international markets was a separate issue. “We are prepared to do our share. The Ukrainian grain market access, that’s another thing,” Mr Nebenzia said.
Mr Nebenzia said that while there were no direct sanctions on Russian fertilizers or grains, there had been a chilling effect on shipping, insurance and banking after the United States and others began punishing Russia over what Moscow calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Mr Blinken said it was “false” to blame sanctions because the United States had created exceptions and was working to ensure measures imposed by Washington “are not preventing food or fertilizer from leaving Russia or anywhere else.”
Moscow said nearly 700 more Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in Russian-held Mariupol as it shored up a key gain in the south, while the United States became the latest Western country to reopen its embassy in Kyiv.
Ukraine has ordered its garrison in Mariupol to stand down, but the ultimate outcome of Europe’s bloodiest battle for decades remains unresolved.
Top commanders of Ukrainian fighters who had made their last stand at the Azovstal steelworks in the port city are still inside the plant, according to the leader of pro-Russian separatists in control of the area, Denis Pushilin, quoted by local news agency DNA on Wednesday.
Ukrainian officials have declined to comment publicly on the fate of the fighters.
“The state is making utmost efforts to carry out the rescue of our service personnel,” military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzaynik told a news conference. “Any information to the public could endanger that process.”
Ukraine confirmed the surrender of more than 250 fighters on Tuesday but did not say how many more were inside.
Russia said on Wednesday an additional 694 more fighters had surrendered, bringing the total number to 959. Its defence ministry posted videos of what it said were Ukrainian fighters receiving hospital treatment after surrendering at Azovstal.
Mariupol is the biggest city Russia has captured so far and allows Russian president Vladimir Putin to claim a rare victory in the invasion it began on Februry 24th.
Moscow has focussed on the southeast in recent offensives after pulling away from Kyiv, where, in a further sign of normalisation, the United States said it had resumed operations at its embassy on Wednesday.
The US Senate approved veteran diplomat Bridget Brink as ambassador to Ukraine, filling a post that has been vacant for three years.
Canada, Britain and others have also recently resumed embassy operations.
Moscow says it is engaged in a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” its neighbour. The West and Kyiv call that a false pretext for invasion.
On the battle front, Russian forces pressed on with their main offensive, trying to capture more territory in the eastern Donbas region which Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.
Ukraine’s general staff said in a statement on Thursday that Russia’s attacks were focused on the Donetsk region in the Donbas.
Around Slovyansk to the north of Donetsk, Russian forces “suffered significant losses” around the settlement of Velyka Komyshuvakha, it said.
Reuters was unable to verify the reports.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Ukrainian saboteurs had blown up railway tracks ahead of an armoured train carrying Russian troops in the occupied southern city of Melitopol.
“The partisans got it, although they did not blow up the armoured train itself,” he said in a video posted on social media, contradicting an earlier statement from Ukraine’s territorial defence force that the train had been blown up.
Arestovych said the incident showed that the partisan movement was actively disrupting Russian forces.
Finland and Sweden formally applied for Nato membership on Wednesday, a decision made in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion and the very kind of expansion that Mr Putin cited as a reason for attacking Ukraine.
US Ambassador to Nato Julianne Smith called for an expedited accession process that could be “done in a couple of months”, but Nato member Turkey said its approval depended on the return of “terrorists”, namely Kurdish militants and Fethullah Gulen followers.
Finland and Sweden were both militarily non-aligned throughout the Cold War.
Although Russia had threatened retaliation against the plans, Putin said on Monday their Nato membership would not be an issue unless the alliance sent more troops or weapons there.
Russia could, however, cut off gas supplies to Finland this week, Finland’s state-owned energy provider Gasum said.
Meanwhile, Google became the latest big Western company to pull out of Russia, saying its local unit had filed for bankruptcy and was forced to shut operations after its bank accounts were seized. – Reuters