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An intense global scramble is on to keep Ukraine grain deal alive, as Russia pulls out

Cargo ships loaded with grain in the anchorage area of the southern entrance to the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul on Monday. Ships left Ukrainian ports on Monday despite Russia's decision to pull out from a landmark deal designed to ease a global food crisis.
Ozan Kose
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AFP / Getty Images
Cargo ships loaded with grain in the anchorage area of the southern entrance to the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul on Monday. Ships left Ukrainian ports on Monday despite Russia's decision to pull out from a landmark deal designed to ease a global food crisis.

ISTANBUL — Turkey, the United Nations and other countries are scrambling to salvage a deal that allows for the safe export of Ukrainian grain, after Russia said it was pulling out indefinitely. Russia's move caused a spike in global wheat prices and raised fresh concerns over food shortages, especially in the developing world.

Moscow announced it was suspending its part of the arrangement after an attack this weekend on its Black Sea fleet near Crimea, for which it blames Ukrainian drone attacks. The United States and other Western powers condemned Russia's decision.

Turkey and the U.N. brokered the grain initiative in July and it was set to expire Nov. 19. They said talks with Russia and Ukraine were underway to renew it.

"Although Russia is hesitant in this regard because it could not benefit in the same way [as Ukraine did], we will decisively continue our efforts to serve humanity," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday in Istanbul.

The Turkish Defense Ministry said on Sunday that Russian teams working on the grain deal would remain in Istanbul, where the Joint Coordination Center (JCC) that oversees the grain shipments is based, but no new ships would leave Ukraine through the humanitarian corridor in the Black Sea in the meantime.

In the three months since it was formalized, the deal has been considered a huge success, exporting over 9.5 million tons of wheat, corn, sunflower products, rapeseed and barley, and helped lower food prices around the world and prevent tens of millions of people from falling into extreme poverty, according to U.N. estimates.

Russia had been threatening to sink deal for weeks

Russia informed the U.N. and Turkey on Saturday that it could no longer guarantee the safety of ships in the Black Sea, due to the attack on its fleet. But Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have been unhappy with the deal for months.

Erdogan spoke to Putin about Russia extending the deal when they met in Astana, Kazakhstan, two weeks ago, the Turkish president's chief adviser and spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, told NPR.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of a summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Oct. 13.
Vyacheslav Prokofyev / Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
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Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of a summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Oct. 13.

"We received more or less a favorable response. But, the Russians are saying that they want to send in their ammonia and fertilizers as well," Kalin said. Under the deal, Russia could export its own fertilizer and grain, but fears of secondary sanctions have gotten in the way of Russian exports.

Kalin said Turkey had been prepared for a rough round of talks ahead of the expiration date. "We will intensify our diplomatic initiatives to make sure that this is renewed before its expiration date," he said.

In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged "all parties to make every effort to renew the Black Sea Grain Initiative and implement both agreements to their fullest, including the expedited removal of any remaining impediments to Russian grain and fertilizer export."

The U.N. Security Council has convened Monday to discuss the issue, at the request of Russia.

Inspections continue for ships already in Istanbul

Turkey and the United Nations say they will continue to implement the deal and inspect ships that are part of the initiative, despite Russia's lack of participation.

But it's not clear how long they can keep it going.

There are more than 100 vessels awaiting JCC inspection and officials say they are trying to clear the backlog.

A crew member prepares a grain analysis for an inspection by members of the Joint Coordination Center onboard the Barbados-flagged ship, Nord Vind, coming from Ukraine loaded with grain and anchored in Istanbul, on Oct. 11.
Yasin Akgul / AFP / Getty Images
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AFP / Getty Images
A crew member prepares a grain analysis for an inspection by members of the Joint Coordination Center onboard the Barbados-flagged ship, Nord Vind, coming from Ukraine loaded with grain and anchored in Istanbul, on Oct. 11.

An additional 16 ships — 12 outbound, four inbound — will travel in the maritime humanitarian corridor set up in the Black Sea on Monday, according to the JCC.

Russia has not blocked the movement of those grain ships.

Discussions continue to extend the deal

Russia is under pressure from the international community to resume its participation.

U.N. and Turkish officials told NPR that both Russia and Ukraine need the grain deal to continue, and discussions to extend it are ongoing. For Ukraine, it's a lifeline to its battered wartime economy. For Russia, in addition to getting out its own fertilizer and grain exports, Moscow wants to retain favor with countries from Brazil to India that haven't backed sanctions against Russia and depend on these shipments.

The U.N. coordinator for the grain deal, Amir Abdulla, told NPR that there is another dimension to the initiative.

"It's very important that it is an area and a platform where Russia and Ukraine are talking to each other to achieve a very noble aim," he said.

"They realize what this has meant to the rest of the world. The initiative has been one of the few, I would say, happy stories in this part of the world at the moment," said Abdulla. "And so, I hope that those who are going to be making that final decision will recognize the responsibility that they have."

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