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An update on the Black Sea grain deal

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia is taking an increasingly hard line on Ukraine exporting grain through the Black Sea.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah, on Monday, it pulled out of a deal that ensured the safe passage of ships exporting the grain, and yesterday, Russia's Defense Ministry said it will consider any ships in the sea heading toward Ukraine as hostile. Ukraine, meanwhile, has vowed to keep this vital supply route open and is asking its Western allies and the United Nations for help in doing so.

MARTIN: NPR's Joanna Kakissis is just back from the port city of Odesa and is with us now on the line from Kyiv. Joanna, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Could you just start by talking about the ships that carry the grain? What is Russia threatening exactly?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, the Russians have not said explicitly that they will attack these ships, but the implication is clear. The Russian Defense Ministry said, quote, that "these ships will be considered as having entered the conflict on the side of the Kyiv regime," so on the side of Ukraine. So it's going to be very hard to convince commercial shipping companies to use the Black Sea shipping route right now. And since Russia's decision to leave the grain deal was announced on Monday, Russian forces have also been hitting the port cities of Odesa and Mykolaiv with drones and missiles. I was just in the Odesa port earlier this week, and with no grain deal, of course it was empty and eerily quiet during the day, but at night there were lots of explosions there. We could hear and see them from our hotel. Russian strikes damaged grain silos, a grain and oil terminal and loading equipment at that port.

MARTIN: So what does this mean for the global food supply?

KAKISSIS: Well, it's likely going to hurt food security. So for context, Ukraine and Russia have historically been major food exporters. And in the first months of Russia's full-scale invasion last year, the supply of grain and cooking oil really dropped because of two things - Russia's blockade of Ukrainian ports and Western sanctions against Russia. Prices went up. Parts of Africa and the Middle East were affected. That's why the United Nations and Turkey stepped in last summer to negotiate this deal with Russia. USAID Administrator Samantha Power, who was in the Port of Odesa earlier this week, said that more than 32 million metric tons of grain and oilseed were transported while Russia was still participating in this deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAMANTHA POWER: The human consequences of a decision to deny food to the world's most vulnerable are devastating. Two-thirds of the wheat that was exported went to developing countries.

KAKISSIS: This week, she announced $250 million in U.S. aid to help Ukraine's agriculture and agribusiness.

MARTIN: Can anything be done to salvage the deal?

KAKISSIS: Yeah. Russia says it will resume participating in the deal if its conditions are met. Moscow wants better terms for exports of their grain and fertilizer than they were getting before. And if they get these things, they say they're in. Meanwhile, President Zelenskyy says the Russians can't be trusted, and he's trying to convince governments around the world that grain trade with Ukraine is still possible. Of course, there are alternative routes outside the sea, transporting the grain by river or train, but the volumes are much smaller. In Odesa, I spoke with Shota Khadzhishvili. He's a prominent grain dealer in Ukraine, and he explained why he was preparing for worst-case scenarios when it came to the future of his company.

SHOTA KHADZHISHVILI: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: So he's saying that Russia will thwart any plans to restart shipping here, and he says that they will keep attacking ships and ports. And he says the only way for Ukraine's Black Sea export deal to begin again is for Ukraine to win this war.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Joanna Kakissis. Joanna, thank you so much.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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