An unprecedented wartime deal that allows grain to flow from Ukraine to countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where hunger is a growing threat and high food prices are pushing more people into poverty has been extended, officials said Saturday.
The extension was announced by the United Nations and by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but neither confirmed its length.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov tweeted that the deal had been extended for 120 days — the length that Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations had wanted.
A Russian foreign ministry spokesperson said Russia has notified all parties to the deal that it has been extended for 60 days.
This is the second renewal of separate agreements that Ukraine and Russia signed with the United Nations and Turkey to allow food to leave the Black Sea region after Russia invaded its neighbour more than a year ago.
The warring nations are both major global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other affordable food products that developing nations depend on.
Russia has complained that shipments of its fertilizers — also critical to the global food chain — are not getting to global markets, which has long been an issue under the deal that first took effect in August and was renewed for another four months in November.
The war in Ukraine sent food prices surging to record highs last year and helped contribute to a global food crisis also tied to lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate factors, such as drought.
Watch | Russia-Ukraine war exacerbates global food insecurity:
Developing countries in need
That disruption in shipments of grain needed for staples of diets in places like Egypt, Lebanon and Nigeria exacerbated economic challenges and helped push millions more people into poverty or food insecurity.
People in developing countries spend more of their money on basics like food.
Food prices have fallen for 11 straight months, but food was already expensive before the war because of droughts from the Americas to the Middle East — particularly in the Horn of Africa, with thousands dying in Somalia.
Poorer nations that depend on imported food priced in dollars are spending more as their currencies weaken.
The crisis has left an estimated 345 million people facing food insecurity, according to the UN's World Food Program.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative has helped by allowing 24 million metric tonnes of grain to leave Ukrainian ports, with 55 per cent of the shipments heading going to developing nations, the U.N. said.
The agreements have also faced setbacks since it was brokered by the UN and Turkey: Russia pulled out briefly in November before rejoining and extending the deal. In the past few months, inspections meant to ensure ships only carry grain and not weapons have slowed down.
That has helped lead to backlogs in vessels waiting in the waters of Turkey and a recent drop in the amount of grain getting out of Ukraine. Ukrainian and some U.S. officials have blamed Russia for the slowdowns, which the country denies.
While fertilizers have been stuck, Russia has been exporting huge amounts of wheat after a record crop.
Figures from financial data provider Refinitiv show that Russian wheat exports more than doubled to 3.8 million tons in January from the same month a year ago, before the invasion.
Putin marks annexation anniversary
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Crimea on Saturday on an unannounced visit to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia's annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine.
Putin was greeted by the Russian-installed governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev, and taken to see a new children's centre and art school on what the official said was a surprise visit.
State media did not immediately broadcast any remarks from Putin, a day after the International Criminal Court said it had issued an arrest warrant against him and accused him of the war crime of illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine.
Putin has yet to comment publicly on the move.
His spokesperson has called it "null and void," and said that Russia finds the very questions raised by the ICC to be "outrageous and unacceptable."
Russia seized Crimea in 2014, eight years before launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Ukraine says it will fight to expel Russia from Crimea and all other territory that Russia has occupied in the year-long war.
Watch | ICC issues arrest warrant for Russian president:
Wagner Group recruiting more mercenaries
Russia's Wagner mercenary group plans to recruit approximately 30,000 new fighters by the middle of May, its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Saturday.
He said in an audio message on Telegram that Wagner recruitment centres, which he said last week had opened in 42 Russian cities, were hiring on average 500-800 people a day.
He gave no evidence to support the numbers, which Reuters could not independently verify.
Prigozhin's men have sustained heavy losses while leading Russian efforts to capture the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which has held out since last summer in the longest and bloodiest battle of the year-long war.
In January, the United States assessed that Wagner had about 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, including 40,000 convicts Prigozhin had recruited from Russian prisons with a promise of a free pardon if they survived six months.
Ukrainian officials have claimed that some 30,000 of Wagner's fighters have deserted or been killed or wounded, a figure that could not be independently verified.
Listen | Explaining the Wagner Group and the Russian mercenaries fighting in Ukraine: