Russia denies slowing inspections for Ukraine grain ships

ANKARA: Russia’s ambassador to Turkey said on Friday (Nov 25) that Moscow sends its representatives to more ship inspections in Istanbul per day than mandated under the Black Sea grain deal, rejecting a Ukrainian accusation that Russia is slowing down the process.

Ukraine’s grain exports have proceeded more slowly since a UN-brokered deal was extended last week to help ease global hunger, Reuters reported on Thursday.

Vasyl Bodnar, Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey, attributed the slowdown to uncertainty last week over renewing the deal and also Russia’s refusal to speed up inspections and increase the number of teams from three currently.

Aleksey Erkhov, Russia’s ambassador, said Russia “strictly complies with its obligations” under the grain export deal, which requires parties to form three inspection teams.

“Based on this, the number and composition of the Russian delegation to the JCC were established,” he said, adding that Russia sends its representatives to one or two additional inspection teams daily due to the increased number of vessels.

“This is done as a gesture of goodwill and by reducing the time intended for inspectors to rest in accordance with labor law,” Erkhov said in an emailed response to Reuters’ questions.

A UN spokesperson, Ismini Palla, the UN spokesperson for the Black Sea Grain Initiative in Istanbul, has said three inspection teams have operated in the last two weeks.

The Joint Coordination Centre (JCC) in Istanbul said on Thursday the delegations were discussing ways to increase the number of successful inspections, adding that it planned to deploy four teams for inspections on Friday.

Since the agreement was extended beyond Nov. 19, no more than five ships a day have departed Ukraine, UN data show, down from previous weeks and months when up to 10 departed.

On two of the last four days, only one ship left Ukraine’s ports, while two left on Friday.

In response to Bodnar’s statement that Russian teams were slowing down the checks “probably with intent”, Erkhov said the duration of inspections is determined by objective factors.

The duration “can be reduced only by formalizing the approach to this process. Such an approach, actively promoted by the Ukrainian delegation, is unacceptable for the Russian side,” he added.

The deal, between Moscow and Kyiv that was also brokered by Ankara, unblocked exports that were stalled in Ukraine’s Black Sea ports after Russia’s invasion. It began in July and was extended last week through March, easing global food prices.

Ukraine and Russia are major global grain exporters. They agreed that teams would check the vessels to ensure no barred people or goods are arriving at or departing from Ukrainian ports.

There were between zero to six inspections per day in the seven days to Nov 23, and eight each on Thursday and Friday, the UN data show. That compares to five to eight daily inspections in the previous week and up to 11 in the one before. Palla has said vessel flows were affected by past uncertainty over extending the deal, poor weather conditions and a rotation of new staff and inspectors at the JCC.