Russia raises doubts about grain deal renewal as deadline looms
By Caleb Davis
(Reuters) -Russia said on Thursday that a landmark deal to ensure the safe export of grain from Ukraine's Black Sea ports was only being "half-implemented", raising doubts about whether it would allow an extension of the agreement due to expire next week.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey last July, aimed to prevent a global food crisis by allowing Ukrainian grain blockaded by Russia's invasion to be safely exported from three Ukrainian ports.
The deal was extended for 120 days in November and will renew on March 18 if no party objects. However Moscow has already signalled it will only agree to an extension if restrictions affecting its own exports are lifted.
Russia's agricultural exports have not been explicitly targeted by the West, but Moscow says sanctions on its payments, logistics and insurance industries are a barrier to it being able to export its own grains and fertilisers.
"There are still a lot of questions about the final recipients, questions about where most of the grain is going. And of course, questions about the second part of the agreements are well known to all," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Russia has complained that Ukrainian grain exported under the deal is going to wealthy countries. The "second part" refers to a memorandum of understanding with the U.N. which facilitates Russian food and fertiliser exports.
'IT HAS TO BE EXTENDED'
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's chief of staff said the grain deal was part of the country's plan to end the war and should be extended indefinitely.
Andriy Yermak, quoted by Interfax Ukraine news agency, said any suggestion of ending the grain initiative amounted to "pressure on its intermediaries - Turkey and the U.N."
"At the very least, it has to be extended by the same term as before," Yermak was quoted as telling reporters.
Zelenskiy and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres held talks in Kyiv on Wednesday on extending the deal, which Guterres said was of "critical importance".
There are currently no plans for direct talks between Guterres and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference on Thursday that what he called the "two parts" of the deal - ensuring safe exports of Ukrainian grain and removing barriers to Russian exports - were "inextricably linked".
"The first part is being implemented, and we are fulfilling all our obligations in this regard together with our Turkish colleagues," Lavrov said.
"The second part is not being implemented at all."
"If we're talking about a deal, it's a package deal. You can only extend what is already being implemented, and if the package is half-implemented, then the issue of extension becomes quite complicated," Lavrov said.
Top U.N. trade official Rebeca Grynspan is set to discuss the grain deal with senior Russian officials in Geneva next week.
Ukraine has so far exported more than 23 million tonnes of mainly corn and wheat under the initiative, according to the United Nations. The top primary destinations for shipments have been China, Spain, Turkey, Italy and the Netherlands.
"Exports of Ukrainian - as well as Russian - food and fertilisers are essential to global food security and food prices," Guterres told reporters on Wednesday.
(Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Ron Popeski and Bill Berkrot)