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A solution for the food crisis is in jeopardy after Russia attacks Ukrainian port

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A deal to secure the transport of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain out of Black Sea ports is in doubt after Russian missiles hit Ukraine's biggest port on Saturday. The United Nations and Turkey brokered the deal to help alleviate a growing global food crisis, especially in developing nations. Despite the attacks, Ukrainian leaders say they want to move forward with this deal. They see it as essential to saving their economy as the war drags on. NPR's Joanna Kakissis joins us now from Kyiv to discuss the latest developments. Hello, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hello, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So, Joanna, what is the latest on this grain export deal? Is it still happening?

KAKISSIS: So, well, according to the Ukrainians, this deal is still happening. They want it to happen, and they need it to happen. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says it would bring in $10 billion to the Ukrainian economy, and that is just lifesaving cash for a country that's projected to lose up to half of its GDP this year and is also on the verge of a serious currency crisis. And on his Telegram channel last night, Zelenskyy also tried to frame this missile attack as the last nail in the coffin of Russia's credibility.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) The attack on our port of Odesa is a blow to the political positions of Russia itself. If anyone in the world could still say that we only need some kind of a dialogue with Russia, some kind of agreement, then take a look at what is happening.

KAKISSIS: And he says that the strikes actually bring Ukraine closer to obtaining more weapons from the West so it can win this war.

RASCOE: So why is this deal so important to Ukraine?

KAKISSIS: So Ukraine has two big industries - agriculture and metals. And the Russians destroyed major steel plants in the south, most notably in the southern city of Mariupol. And so Ukrainians are really relying on agriculture. Ukraine usually exports at least 4 million metric tons of grain a month, but it's only getting less than half of that amount out now and all via land routes. Ukraine has more than 20 million tons of grain from last year's harvest in storage. And now that this year's harvest is coming in, it risks going bad because there's nowhere to store it. I've been speaking with Ukraine's deputy agriculture minister, Taras Vysotsky, about all this. And he explains that if farmers cannot make money on the current harvest, they can't afford to plant next year's crop.

TARAS VYSOTSKY: Farmers won't have money to keep planting winter crops, for example, in a month from September. And if farmers stop planting, this means we will have much worse problems later. If you don't plant, then you lose a whole year.

RASCOE: But this blockade isn't just bad for Ukraine's economy. Like, there are a lot of countries that are desperate right now for this grain.

KAKISSIS: Yeah, that's absolutely right. And that's why it's so important for the United Nations to make this deal work, to deal with rising food prices and food shortages. Ukraine is often called the world's breadbasket. And, you know, lots of countries which are prone to famine rely on Ukrainian grain.

RASCOE: So any word from Russia on what's going on with this deal?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, a spokesperson from Russia's foreign ministry said today that the missile strikes were actually not aimed at grain infrastructure, but at military targets. And this comment shows some serious holes in this deal. Right now, the deal says that neither side can attack, quote, "any port structure relevant to this deal," which is vague. It's unclear whether the deal includes only grain infrastructure or the entire port. And it's worth noting that the port of Odesa is a civilian port. And it is enormous. It, like, spans a hundred acres. So the Ukrainians say that the U.N. must spell out security guarantees for this port and others on the Black Sea if it wants this deal to work.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Thank you so much for joining us.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.