(CN) — In a major diplomatic breakthrough, Kyiv and Moscow on Friday agreed to guarantee the safe resumption of vital grain, food and fertilizer exports from Ukraine and Russia through the Black Sea, easing fears over global food shortages.
The deal – still at risk of being quickly breached as the war rages on – was brokered by the United Nations and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It came a day after Russia resumed pumping natural gas into the European Union through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, a move that allays fears of a cutoff of gas supplies.
The war in Ukraine on Friday continued to grind on with both sides claiming they were inflicting major damage on their enemy. In recent days, Kyiv and its Western backers have sounded more confident about turning the tide of the war as Russian advances appeared to be stalling as Moscow's troops encounter tougher terrain and the arrival of advanced Western weapons on the battlefield.
Friday's deal ensuring the safe passage of grains, food products and fertilizer through the Black Sea was inked at a signing ceremony in Istanbul.
Shipments will be able to restart from Odesa and two nearby ports, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny. These ports, which are still under Ukrainian control, have been cut off by sea mines Ukraine floated to protect its ports against amphibious assault and by a Russian naval blockade.
Under the deal, the mines will not be removed and instead ships will be piloted around them. Russia has agreed to not fire upon cargo ships but ships heading toward Ukraine will undergo inspections to ensure they aren't carrying weapons.
Ships have been leaving Russian-held ports in Ukraine, such as Mariupol, but Western sanctions have blocked Russian food and fertilizer exports. The deal allows these Russian shipments.
“This is an unprecedented agreement between two parties engaged in bloody conflict,” said United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who attended the signing ceremony. “But that conflict continues and people are dying every day. And fighting is raging every day.”
He said the deal “will bring relief for developing countries on the edge of bankruptcy and the most vulnerable people on the edge of famine.”
But he cautioned that the deal could break down still.
“I urge all sides to spare no efforts to implement their commitments,” Guterres said. “We must also spare no effort for peace.”
He said task forces have been set up to monitor the parties and ensure the deal is carried out.
Friday's breakthrough comes as devastated Ukrainian farmers harvest their fields even as they watch warplanes, attack helicopters and missiles stream over their heads and crops go up in flames. Both sides allege soldiers are intentionally setting fields on fire.
Russia and its troops, which have occupied about a quarter of Ukraine's 81 million acres of arable land, have been accused of looting farm equipment, destroying grain silos and selling stolen harvests. Reports from Ukraine's vast plains also depict farmers dealing with destroyed military equipment such as tanks left in their fields.
For months, global tensions have been growing as the price for food has shot up, sparking protests and unrest in many parts of the world. There are fears the war may cause widespread famine in the poorest parts of the world. Russia and Ukraine supply 28% of globally traded wheat, 29% of the barley, 15% of the maize and 75% of the sunflower oil.
On the front lines, fighting continued to be gruesome with both sides claiming they were inflicting heavy casualties.
This week, Russia's defense ministry claimed strikes killed hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers in the regions of Odesa and Donetsk.
On Friday, Western media cited a senior U.S. defense official who said Russia was sustaining hundreds of casualties each day and that thousands of lieutenants and captains have been killed since the start of the invasion.
On Wednesday, CIA Director William Burns estimated that about 15,000 Russian troops have been killed and that as many as 45,000 have been wounded.
Ukraine and Russia are not reporting casualty figures, but both sides are suffering thousands of casualties, making the war in Ukraine among the bloodiest in recent decades.
Russia has between 150,000 and 200,000 soldiers fighting in Ukraine while Ukraine's ranks are swelling with up to 700,000 soldiers, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Ukraine, though, is relying on mass mobilization of men and many of its troops are poorly trained citizens-turned-combatants.
Throughout the war, there have been reports of harsh tactics by both sides to forcibly conscript men and send them to the front lines. Under martial law, Ukraine has made it illegal for men between the age of 18 and 60 to leave the country. Authorities in Russian-held Ukrainian territories are accused of rounding up men against their will and forcing them to fight.
Until now, Russia has held the advantage in firepower with some military experts saying Russia's artillery outmatches Ukraine's 10-to-1.
But Ukraine's firepower is ratcheting up with the delivery of Western weapons, including advanced systems such as the U.S.-supplied high mobility artillery rocket systems, known as HIMARS.
Russia claims it has destroyed four of these high-precision rocket systems, a contention denied by the U.S., though there is evidence of Russian strikes on such systems. So far, Ukraine has been supplied with 16 HIMARS.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington military think tank, said in its Thursday report that Russian advances in Ukraine are stalling.
“Russian forces are unlikely to be able to take significant ground in the coming weeks,” it said.
The think tank doubted that Russia will be able to capture Slovyansk or Bakhmut, two urban centers in the Donetsk region. The Kremlin has made seizing Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk a key goal in its invasion.
The think tank added, citing Ukrainian military intelligence, that Russia may have used up more than half of its reserves of high-precision missiles. It said this will swing the advantage toward Ukraine because its Western missiles are superior to Russia's stockpiles of Soviet-era rockets.
In Kyiv, Zelenskyy said late Thursday that he met with his military commanders and remained confident about his country's ability to defeat Russia with the help of Western weapons and support.
“The participants of the staff meeting agreed that we have a significant potential for the advance of our forces on the front and for the infliction of significant new losses on the occupiers,” Zelenskyy said.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @cainburdeau
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