An International Negotiation Process Leads to a Fragile Agreement in Ukraine

In a mediated international negotiation process, Ukraine and Russia agreed to resume their grain exports via the Black Sea. But without trust between the parties, will the deal hold?

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Ever since Russia blockaded the Black Sea at the start of its war on Ukraine, most of Ukraine’s abundant grain harvest has been trapped in silos, far from those who count on it for survival. The closing of ports in Ukraine, one of the world’s great breadbaskets, threatened to bring famine and political unrest to East Africa and the Middle East.

A three-month international negotiation process led to a breakthrough on July 22, when Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement to bring more than 20 million tons of grain to market. But the deal is tenuous, dependent on Russia’s willingness to follow through. We take a closer look at this case study on negotiation, which highlights the importance of negotiation in diplomacy.

Compelling Motives to Negotiate

Before Russia’s unprovoked attack, Ukraine exported up to seven million tons of grain—including wheat, barley, corn, and sunflower—per month. After the war, that figure dropped to only around two million tons per month “via a hastily cobbled patchwork of overland and river routes,” according to the New York Times. Delivery to the Middle East and North Africa slowed to a crawl, even as the cost of transporting grain skyrocketed. Wheat costs—already high as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic—leaped 50% from February to May 2022.

Unblocking the ports would head off famine and bring Ukraine much-needed revenues. But the odds of getting Russia to commit to alleviating the situation seemed low. Peace talks between Russia and Ukraine had been abandoned, and Russia has continually broken cease-fires and promises to help evacuate civilians and bring humanitarian aid into war zones.

Yet Moscow had strong interests in reaching a grain deal, writes Alexandra Prokopenko, an independent Russia analyst, for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Many of Russia’s strategic partners in the Middle East and North Africa, including Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, had warned Russia that grain shortages could destabilize the region and urged it to cooperate on a solution. The port blockade also was preventing Russia from exporting its own grain and fertilizer—an $11 billion industry. Moreover, numerous high-ranking Russian officials have financial ties to the country’s agricultural industry, and Russian banks wanted assets unfrozen in a grain deal.

In addition, “being blamed for world starvation is not what Russia would like,” Russia in Global Affairs editor Fyodor Lukyanov told the Christian Science Monitor. These many compelling interests persuaded Russia to take part in an international negotiation process mediated by the United Nations and Turkey, which hosted the talks.

The International Negotiation Process and Outcomes

Early in the international mediation, Ukraine objected to a proposal that would remove the many mines it had planted in the Black Sea to thwart Russian attacks. Ukraine also rejected the idea of an international military flotilla that would escort the grain ships. Eventually, it agreed to a civilian operation in which Ukrainian captains would steer the ships through the start of their journey, the Times reports. To get Russia on board, the United States convinced private shippers and insurance companies that they could transport Russian food and fertilizers without violating Western sanctions.

Eventually, the parties agreed to a deal in which Odesa and neighboring ports will open for the delivery of five million tons of Ukrainian food to the world market every month, according to the Times. Russia agreed not to attack the Ukrainian naval vessels escorting the grain cargo ships or the port facilities used for the operations. Turkey and the United Nations (UN)will inspect the ships to confirm they are not being used to smuggle arms to Ukraine. And the UN will help Russia get its own grain and fertilizer shipments to market.

“The deal gives each side things they desperately wanted,” write Howard LaFranchi and Fred Weir in the Christian Science Monitor. It was also a win for the mediators, Prokopenko notes. The UN strengthened its reputation as a deal broker and drew attention to the risk of famine in developing nations. Turkey demonstrated an ability to be an effective broker and is likely to profit from processing Russian and Ukrainian grain for sale in the Middle East.

Upon the deal’s announcement, the price of wheat futures fell by more than 5%, offering buyers some relief. But the day after the deal was signed, Russian cruise missiles struck the port of Odesa. Though the attack didn’t technically violate the agreement, Russia may have been signaling it would not back down against Ukraine militarily, writes Prokopenko.

Lessons from an International Negotiation Process

The international negotiation process highlights negotiation strategies that may help forge agreements even between distrustful parties:

1. Enlist trusted mediators. A deal would not have been possible without mediators working to help the parties brainstorm and exchange proposals. Enlisting two or more mediators who would benefit from brokering a deal may be just as effective as relying on a single neutral party.

2. Assess your power. As Ukrainian negotiators recognized, Russia had strong interests in reaching a deal on grain. This knowledge led Ukraine to recognize it had sufficient power to push for its own interests in the negotiation.

3. Distrust and verify. When trust between parties is low or nonexistent, oversight is crucial to ensure parties meet their obligations. For the grain deal to hold, the UN and Turkey will need to monitor the parties’ actions and hold them accountable for violations.

4. Capitalize on incremental agreements. Deal implementation will require close contacts among Russia, Ukraine, the UN, and Turkey, which could promote further cooperation and diplomatic breakthroughs. “Eventually the verification process may lead the way to something larger,” New York University professor Waheguru Pal Sidhu told the Christian Science Monitor.

Which elements of this international negotiation process might prove helpful in your own negotiations?