The Black Sea Grain Initiative: Dryad Global says first days are the riskiest

Security Consultancy Dryad Global has warned that the first days of the grain agreement between Ukraine and Russia will be the most dangerous.

On July 22nd Ukraine and Russia signed agreements with Turkey to facilitate the export of grain, foodstuffs, and fertilizers from Ukraine.

Within 24 hours the deal looked to be in danger after Russia launched four Kalibr missiles at the port of Odesa, one of the three ports listed under the deal. However, none of the missiles struck the grain port (Russia insisted that it was only attacking military installations), but Dryad Global felt that “the attack appeared to demonstrate a Russian disregard for the parameters of the agreement”.

But by July 24th it was clear that Russia and Ukraine were willing to continue with the deal.

The UN-backed negotiations for a ‘grain corridor’ in the Black Sea had begun in May and took two months to get to the signing stage. Ukraine felt that Russia had been “brought to the table” by military force, but external analysts leant to the view that Russia wanted to gain diplomatic points with the countries suffering the most from a lack of Ukrainian exports, notably Egypt and other east African countries further south, plus Lebanon, a next-door neighbour of Russian ally Syria.

The deal covers the export of grain and related products, including foodstuffs, and fertilizers inclusive of ammonia. As part of the Initiative, Russia signed a separate Memorandum of Understanding with the UN to facilitate the export of Russian fertilizer, worth $7.6bn annually.

All parties to the agreement have promised to not attack or endanger any vessel or civilian vessels engaged in the activities contained within the deal. The deal specifies that Ukraine and Russia will create a safe environment around the ports of Odesa, Chernomosk and Yuzhne. The deal will remain in place for 120 days from the date of signing and will be extended automatically for the same period, unless otherwise stated by any party to the agreement.

A Joint Coordination Centre (JCC) has been established in Istanbul, comprising representatives from all signatories. The Ukrainian delegation arrived in Istanbul on Monday 25th July, with the Russian delegation arriving later in the week.

Merchant vessels moving grain have to be prior registered with the JCC, which will verify their details and confirming their loading port.

The JCC will remotely monitor vessels through the duration of their passage through the maritime humanitarian corridor. Because all vessels will be monitored remotely, no military vessels or aircraft or drones may approach the humanitarian corridor closer than a distance agreed by the JCC without authorization by the JCC and consultation with all parties.

The JCC is to issue a detailed operational and communications plan ,including safe harbours and medical relief options.

Vessels will be subject to inspections in ports designated by Turkey. Vessels will be inspected upon entry and exit of the Turkish Straits. Inspection teams will consist of representatives from each of the signatory states. Vessels will transit inbound the Ukrainian ports in line with the JCC approved schedule upon inspection.

The primary responsibility of the inspection teams is to check for the absence of unauthorized cargoes and personnel onboard vessels inbound and outbound the designated Ukrainian ports.

All activities within Ukrainian territorial waters will be under the authority and responsibility of Ukraine. Should demining be required, a minesweeper of another country, agreed by all parties, will conduct a sweep of the approaches to the designated Ukrainian ports.

Should any suspicious activities or noncompliance with the rules of this operation or emergencies occur on a vessel in transit, depending upon location and upon request to a party of the contained within the JCC, required assistance will be provided to the crew.

Dryad Global noted that, while the terms of Initiative provided for the protection of merchant shipping, there were pertinent and persistent risks around the Initiative that were likely to remain for the duration.

In the balance of negotiating power, Russia had the upper hand in this Initiative, although it still stands to benefit from the successful implementation of the deal. The export of grain is worth much more to Ukraine, as a proportion of GDP, than the export of fertiliser is to Russia. After these first tranche of voyages, Ukraine hopes it will be possible to reconsider the safety and military risks of the north-western Black Sea, which would have significant economic benefits for Ukraine.

Dryad said that “these benefits may be seen by Russia as a way to weaken Ukraine further, providing an incentive for reneging on the Initiative in its earliest hours”. However, Russia apparently has made promises to allies in Asia and Africa to reduce the burden of the war on their food prices by facilitating this Initiative, so sabotaging the deal without justification would further erode Russia’s international credibility.

Turkey is the other big gainer from the deal, and will have every motive to ensure it succeeds. It has suffered some of the highest food price inflation and its shipping industry has suffered due to the externalities of the war. Success would also validate Turkey’s status as a viable mediator in the conflict and President Recep Erdoğan’s position domestically and internationally.

Dryad Global noted that in previous negotiated ceasefires and surrenders Russia had demonstrated a willingness to “give with one hand while taking with the other”, which could manifest in this deal as an intensification of attacks on ports and areas out with the structure of the deal, or unprotected Ukrainian ports, like Ochakiv.

Dryad said that there was evidence of weakening command and control in Russia forces, so an attack as a result of ill-discipline miscalculation remained a realistic possibility.

The treaty is meant to protect the escort vessels, so an attack on escort vessels was thought unlikely, but a strike by Russian missiles could be ruled out in the event that Russia loses faith in the Initiative. Dryad said that it was crucial that Turkey and the United Nations devise mechanisms to continually reassert Russian commitment to the Initiative and its guarantees of safety, rather than assuming Russian compliance through participation.

Escort vessels will be on hand and provided by a third party if necessary and will support mine clearance operations if required. There is a demonstrated risk in this conflict of drifting sea mines posing a hazard to commercial vessels transiting the Black Sea, notwithstanding those that will transit through a narrow navigation corridor.

Dryad warned that “overall, despite assurances within the terms of the treaties, vessels participating in the Black Sea Grain Initiative will be exposed to significant ongoing threats during transit through Ukrainian territorial and international waters and whilst at anchor in the ports of Odesa, Chernomosk and Yuzhnhnyi. The persistent threat of sea mines remains the most prominent threat, although such a threat can in part be mitigated via both effective mine avoidance and mine clearance where required.”

Dryad observed that the additional threats of Russian aggression and continued commitment to the terms of the agreement were harder to account for, and as such presented a potentially greater threat to the continuation of the agreement over the longer term. “The first week of operation will be highly significant for the Initiative, as these types of agreement are most vulnerable to being broken in their early days.”

Dryad concluded that, while there were strong reasons for Russia to act strictly within the bounds of their agreement with Turkey and prevent any attacks on grain terminals and ships, “this conflict has repeatedly demonstrated the importance of never assuming Russia will behave within the bounds of reason”.