Ukraine's grain exports have gotten off to a slower start after a U.N.-brokered deal was extended last week to help ease global hunger, and one Ukrainian envoy put part of the blame on Russia's reluctance to speed up ship inspections.
Since the agreement was extended beyond Nov. 19, no more than five ships a day have departed Ukraine, U.N. data show, down from previous weeks and months when up to 10 departed.
A U.N. spokesperson, Ismini Palla, said vessel flows were affected by past uncertainty over extending the deal, poor Istanbul weather conditions for inspections, and a rotation of new staff and inspectors at a Joint Coordination Centre (JCC).
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.
So far nearly 12 million tonnes of grain and foodstuffs have been exported aboard 491 outbound voyages. But movements have slowed this month, partly due to uncertainty among shippers and insurers about whether Russia would agree to extend the agreement.
A total of 27 ships set sail from Ukraine in the seven days to Nov. 23, compared to 36 in the previous week and 38 between Oct. 27-Nov. 2. Only eight departed between Nov. 3-9, just after Russia briefly suspended its participation in the deal, curbing Ukraine-bound voyages.
Inspections by four-party teams of all outgoing and incoming vessels have also slowed in recent weeks - and are down sharply from the couple of days when only U.N. and Turkish officials worked during Russia's suspension.
Some 112 vessels await checks in waters off Istanbul, including some stalled more than a month, the four-party JCC said on Wednesday, adding it was discussing ways to ramp up successful inspections.
Vasyl Bodnar, Ukraine's ambassador to Turkey, said the slowdown was due 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.
"One main issue is Russians are slowing down checks, probably with intent," he told Reuters.
"If Russians were willing to cooperate, we could improve inspections and increase the numbers. It's up to them."
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, compared to five to eight in the previous week and up to 11 in the one before.
Inclement weather halted some inspections last week, the JCC said. Palla, the U.N. spokesperson for the Black Sea Grain Initiative in Istanbul, said three inspection teams have operated in the last two weeks."The JCC continues its discussions on how to adjust its inspection planning for the winter and deploy sufficient capacity," she said. "We urge all parties to make best efforts to agree on a sustainable and viable way forward."