Collapse of Black Sea and Syria cross-border deals will affect those who need help most

Millions around the world rely on diplomacy working between major powers

People receive food rations in Kabul last April. Like Afghanistan, several poor countries are reliant on wheat delivered from Ukraine. AP
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One hot morning earlier this month, residents of one rural Afghan village were treated to an increasingly rare sight: a convoy of lorries operated by the UN’s World Food Programme barrelling through their muddy backstreets, weighed down with giant sacks of wheat. WFP operations in the country have been hit hard by funding cuts, bringing food aid deliveries such as these to a trickle.

Although the sacks doled out to the village men for their families bore the logo of the US aid agency, UN officials made a point of calling it a wheat delivery from Ukraine to Afghanistan. Ukraine, of course, has not donated much to the WFP, let alone Afghanistan, ever since it was invaded by Russia in February of last year. But highlighting the wheat’s Ukrainian origin was important because it reminded everyone how dependent on geopolitical circumstances humanitarian aid has become.

A more troubling reminder came on Monday, when Russia withdrew from the Turkish- and UN-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative, the complex arrangement that had allowed Ukrainian wheat to be exported out of the country’s ports, which are encircled by Russian warships. Russia has alleged the initiative confers an advantage to Ukrainian agricultural exports over Russian ones, since the latter remain hobbled by broader efforts by western countries to isolate Moscow from the global economy.

The impact was both swift and severe. Wheat futures prices rose 3 per cent, adding to existing alarm over food-price inflation that has plagued the global economy since the start of the war. More than half of the WFP’s wheat for distribution to the world’s poor comes from Ukraine, which has – along with Russia – long been one of the world’s top grain exporters. “Hundreds of millions of people face hunger…they will pay the price,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Ukraine is already planning for alternative export routes. The country’s ambassador to the UAE, Dmytro Senik, told The National on Monday that Kyiv plans to build additional port capacity on the Danube river, further inland. But doing so “will require time, resources and increased cost”.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative is not the only aid lifeline that has fallen victim to geopolitical disputes. On July 11, the UN Security Council, a body famously riven with superpower rivalries, failed to extend a deal that had secured aid deliveries from Turkey to north-west Syria for the past nine years.

Besides the Ukrainians themselves, civilians in north-west Syria are perhaps the greatest victims of the Ukraine war’s spill-over into the humanitarian space. Not only has their sole aid pipeline been squeezed shut, but they are among the populations in the world most reliant on aid rations filled with donated wheat.

But Russia, a close ally of the Syrian government, had long complained that the so-called cross-border mechanism undermined Syrian sovereignty by bypassing Damascus to deliver aid to rebel-held parts of Syria. It is difficult to imagine that Russia’s wider dispute with the UN and western countries – the mechanism’s chief backers – over its war with Ukraine was not a factor, given the timing.

Whatever the proximate causes of the breakdown of the Syrian cross-border mechanism and the Black Sea Grain Initiative, the two arrangements were feats of diplomacy that afforded help to people desperately in need of it. As such, they were triumphs of global powers’ co-operation and compassion even in a divided world. Those same powers should be mindful of the full consequences of their collapse.

Published: July 19, 2023, 3:00 AM
Updated: July 21, 2023, 11:58 AM