Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Ambassador Jim O’Brien at a Foreign Press Center Briefing on the Black Sea Grain Initiative

A farmer checks wheat ripeness on a field in Donetsk region, Ukraine (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
May 11, 2023


MODERATOR: Welcome to the New York Foreign Press Center. We’re honored to have two distinguished briefers with us today who will speak on the Black Sea Grain Initiative: Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Representative to the United Nations; and Ambassador Jim O’Brien, head of the Office of Sanctions of Coordination at the U.S. Department of State. My name is Melissa Waheibi. I’ll be your moderator. This briefing is on the record and being recorded. The transcript will be posted on our website later today at We will also have an audio recording available upon request.

As we begin, we ask that your Zoom profile reflects your name and media outlet. Both briefers will offer opening remarks and then we will have a period of Q&A which I will moderate. Ma’am, we’ll begin with you, followed by Ambassador O’Brien. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you very much, Melissa, and thanks to all of you for joining us today. Right now, according to the World Food Program, more than 345 million people are facing high levels of food insecurity. That is double the number from 2020. The fact is we’re facing a global food crisis. This is a crisis felt most acutely in Africa and the Middle East, and especially by people in countries where food was already in short supply.

That’s what makes the Black Sea Grain Initiative, brokered by the United Nations and Türkiye, so important. The point of the Black Sea Grain Initiative is to make sure grain and food supplies get to those in desperate need and to stabilize global markets. And since it began last August, the initiative has moved over 30 million metric tons of grain and related foodstuff. The initiative has supplied the World Food Program’s ongoing humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen. It has brought stability to global food markets and lowered food prices for everyone from middle income to less developed countries. It has saved countless lives.

But right now, ships are stalled because of Russia’s obstruction. Russia is refusing to approve any incoming ships. Plain and simple, this is Russia once again weaponizing food. They’re holding vulnerable and hungry people in Africa, the Middle East, and around the world hostage.

Russia complains that its exports of food and fertilizers are hampered by sanctions. Let me be clear: Russia is exporting just fine. It is exporting grain and fertilizer at the same levels, if not higher, than before the full-scale invasion. Russia’s threats are about money and power.

The more Russia obstructs Ukraine’s exports, the higher prices go, and with Russian exports moving well, they’re making more profits. Russia’s threats to withdraw from the initiative next week shows the Kremlin doesn’t care about humanitarian concerns or global food security. Russia needs to stop this at once and follow through with their commitments to the UN under the initiative. We’re grateful to the efforts of Secretary-General Guterres and our colleagues in Türkiye for brokering the initial impasse and getting us this far. But as Secretary Blinken said, we should not need to remind Moscow every few weeks to keep their promises and to stop using people’s hunger as a weapon in their war against Ukraine.

The world needs the Black Sea Grain Initiative. What’s more, the world needs Russia to end its illegal war against Ukraine, which would allow farmers to return to their fields, return agricultural trade to normal, and immediately and significantly improve global food security. In the meantime, Russia must stop playing games with the lives of hungry people around the world.

With that, I’ll turn things over to Ambassador O’Brien.

AMBASSADOR JIM O’BRIEN: Thank you, Madam Ambassador. I think that describes the general situation as we see it, and I want to provide a few facts and figures that offer the context you need as you report on this.

So first, what’s at stake? Ukraine exported almost 56 million tons of grain since basically late May last year. When Russia invaded, Ukraine’s exports dropped to effectively zero from almost 6 million tons a month. That’s food for millions of people. But we managed to get out of Ukraine, again, 56 million tons. About 29 million tons of that came through the Black Sea Grain Initiative and the remainder through direct exports through the EU through the solidarity lanes.

Once those – both lanes became effective, food prices dropped on the first day by 6 percent, and they’ve been coming down steadily since then. That’s what allows people to eat. The Grain from Ukraine Program, started in November, has allowed WFP and others to move food directly to the neediest countries around the world. That’s what Russia is stopping.

So how is it stopping it? Well, in classic form, the Russians are playing with the procedures in the Black Sea Grain Initiative. So what they have done is not allow ships to register and then not inspect them. Here are a few facts and figures to emphasize that.

In August and September last year, the Joint Coordinating Commission, the body that implements the Black Sea Grain Initiative, was inspecting at least 10 ships each day going in and out of the ports identified in the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Now they’re averaging fewer than three and the Russians are refusing to register any new ships to go in. And if you will remember a press article from several weeks ago, the Russians sent a diplomatic note warning of threats to civilian shipping if ships remain in the relevant channel after the next week. So the Russians are threatening grain ships. That’s basically what’s happening.

Now, right now today, there are 26 vessels in Turkish waters. They’re loaded with just over 1.1 million tons of grain and other foodstuffs. And all they want are the inspections so that they can travel around the world. That’s what’s at issue. So it is over the next months we anticipate there will be several million tons of grain. This will become critical as we head into the fall, because at that point Ukraine’s summer harvest will be in, it will be able to export 6 million or more tons a month to the world as it always has done. It was traditionally providing 40 to 50 percent of what the World Food Program sent to the world’s neediest markets. That’s what’s at risk as Russia stops this.

Now, let’s go into a few more facts about this. How does Russia justify this? I just want to emphasize what Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said. Russia makes more money when it keeps Ukrainian grain off the market. This is about making money. And Russia does not sell to the neediest countries in the world. Increasingly, Russia sells only to five very large, wealthy markets. So Russia is going to make money by selling to larger markets if it keeps Ukrainian grain off the market. That’s what’s happening.

Now, why does Russia say it’s justified in doing this? It makes a couple of excuses. One point is that it says the Black Sea Grain Initiative does not go to the neediest countries. This is factually wrong, and I would urge you to look at the website of the JCC – and we’ll post that – because they do post the destinations of ships. So you don’t need to listen to American officials; you can look at what the four-party body puts up as far as destinations. And according to that source, 55 percent of the grain that – of the goods shipped under the Black Sea Grain Initiative go to developing countries. More importantly, perhaps, two-thirds of the wheat goes directly to developing countries. And that wheat matters because it is used for human food, whereas a lot of the other Ukrainian products are used as inputs to other food. And Türkiye, for example, says that it re-exports 90 percent of the other food that it receives in the form of processed food; 90 percent of it goes on to Africa. So in fact, Russia is wrong and misleading. It keeps repeating this, never addressing the facts that the UN reports.

A second – and on top of that, the price globally drops whenever Ukraine is on the market. So wherever a country buys its food from, it gets a lower price as long as the Black Sea Grain Initiative is functioning.

Now, the second thing that Russia says is that it has a right to end the export of food to developing countries because Russia is not receiving enough money for its own grain. Even to address the topic tells you how farcical Russia’s objection is. It is also factually wrong. As Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said, the public figures available from the UN – from the Food and Agriculture Organization – show that Russia is exporting as much or more food and fertilizer as it was before the war. So Russia is doing just fine.

The UN has also helped in addressing some specific problems that Russia has encountered. So just on a few examples, there was some Russian fertilizer that was owned by individuals subject to sanctions. It was trapped in EU ports. That has all now been exported, some with – through a WFP program to some of the neediest countries. The U.S., the UK, and the EU have all worked with banks and made clear that payments to Russia for food and fertilizer are allowed. And some of the first payments to a major Russian bank have been completed in the last several weeks.

So Russia is making money. It is – it has all the channels it needs opened, and yet it continues to pile on more and more demands that it get everything it wants, including things it didn’t get before the war, before it will allow Ukraine back on the market. Who suffers from this? It’s the developing countries of the world.

When the Russians delay ships going in to Ukraine, on average each ship costs $20,000 more a day because they have to pay the crew while they wait, they have to provide supplies and keep the ship running. So every day of delay raises the price, and the people who pay that cost are the ones buying the grain, not the Russians. And the food that doesn’t get out, that is all food that then is not available for the World Food Program, for the most needy countries – again, 55 percent of Ukrainian grain goes to developing countries. That’s what Russia is stopping. That’s why it’s so important to be clear Russia invaded a grain exporter; it then stopped its exports; under pressure, largely from the Global South, Russia allowed Ukraine to come back to markets; and now Russia is complaining that it is not making enough money from that arrangement, and so it wants it to stop.

So with that, I think we’re open to some questions. So I’ll turn it back over to you, Melissa.

MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Thank you very much. Yeah, so this is the portion of the – this is the Q&A portion of this event. I know we do have questions already. As a reminder, you can indicate you have a question by raising your virtual hand or putting it in the chat function. Sherwin, we’ll start with you. If you could state your full name and organization and ask your question.

QUESTION: Thank you. It’s Sherwin Bryce-Pease, South African Broadcasting. I hope you will allow me to ask a more broader question as it relates to the war in Ukraine. Out of South Africa this morning, the U.S. ambassador there, Reuben Brigety, has charged the South African Government with providing ammunition and weapons to the Russian Federation. He specifically pointed to the loading of these weapons onto a Russian cargo ship that docked in the South African naval port of Simon’s Town last December.

I wonder how – in terms of the U.S. view, how does this development affect U.S.-South African relations? And specifically to you Ambassador O’Brien, as head of the – as head of sanctions coordination in the U.S. Government, are there any punitive actions that might be considered towards the South African Government given its posture towards the Russian Federation?

AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Do you want to gather a few questions, and then we might get through more? It’s up to you, Melissa.

MODERATOR: If you – if – yeah, okay, so let me – Dmitry, we’ll go to you, and then you can maybe answer both at once or answer each individually. So—

QUESTION: Oh yeah.

MODERATOR: Great. Dmitry, yeah, feel free to please state your name, organization, ask your question, and then the briefers can address maybe both of those and then we’ll move on to the next two.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Dmitry Anopchenko, Ukrainian television, D.C. correspondent. Actually less than an hour ago Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vershinin told that if until the May 18th the new deal will not be agreed, Russia will consider all the grain deal terminated. I know that it’s a Russian position that the deal was prolonged until May 18th, but as I understand it’s controversial and not all the participants of the deal agreed that actually it was prolonged until May 18th. So I’m interested in American position.

And secondly, how do you see the future of the deal if, for example, until the May 18th, as Russia told, their conditions will not be executed and the new deal will not be made? Does it mean that the deal is over? Does it mean that no vessel will go with the Ukrainian grain? So what’s your vision of the consensus? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Why don’t I start with Sherwin’s question just on the statement from Ambassador Brigety. I don’t have anything new to add onto that. We continue to certainly have a strong bilateral relationship with South Africa. We have worked, over the course of the past two years, to encourage all countries to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and not to give any support to those efforts. We will continue to have conversations along those lines with all countries here in New York to ensure that they take on the important position of supporting the UN Charter and supporting our commitment to not allowing one country to invade another country and compromise the territorial integrity of that country.

AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: So I have nothing to add on that point. But more broadly, I would say that with our G7 colleagues we are making it very clear to governments around the world that it is important they not supply the Russian war machine. So with the EU, the UK, Japan, and our other coalition partners, such as the Republic of Korea, we are working with governments around the world to restrict access to anything that will support the Russian military on the grounds in Ukraine.

I’m not going to discuss any specific possible punitive measures. I do think any country that reads the press can see that even the European Union is preparing to provide itself with additional tools to address actions by third countries. So it’s clear this is moving in a direction that – I think it’d be wise of countries to step back from any kind of engagement with the Russian military.

On the question about the state of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, maybe just a couple of comments. So there are talks underway in Istanbul. The UN team continues to work with Türkiye and with the two parties. So I won’t comment on any statement by one of or others of the parties who are trying to work the outside in that sense. I’d just note that it’s been our consistent position that the continuation of the BSGI is in the interest of both Ukraine and Russia, as well as of the globe. And it’s hard to see Russia’s incentive to terminate it, other than a desire to make more money from its grain exports.

At the same time, if Russia wishes to suspend its own termination – this is exactly what it did in the fall, and the initiative was able to provide a great deal of food to people during the time that the Russians suspended their own participation. That would be the Russians’ own decision. But we would welcome seeing the BSGI get back up and functioning as it should so it can help global grain markets.

So with that, back to you, Melissa.

MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Michelle, we’ll go to you. Please state your name, organization, and ask your question.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you so much for the briefing. Michelle Nichols from Reuters. I wanted to ask a little bit sort of more specifically about what you were saying, Ambassador O’Brien, on working with the banks. Could you spell out for us exactly what the U.S. has done to encourage the banks to help facilitate Russian exports? Reuters has obviously done a couple of stories on J.P. Morgan processing some of those payments. Did that come about through a request from the U.S. Government? And did they require – did the banks require something in writing just to give them that comfort that they wouldn’t be doing anything wrong? Because while you’ve stated very clearly that there’s no sanctions on those particular exports, obviously banks and others have been a little wary of getting involved at all.

And then on the ammonia pipeline from Russia to one of the Ukrainian Black Sea ports, which has been a bit of a – one of Russia’s demands, and also a focus of the talks today in Istanbul – it seems like it’s up to Ukraine to basically say yes to that. So what is the sort of U.S. message to Ukraine on that particular aspect of these talks? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Okay. Well, I’ll take on both those. So working with banks – we speak with U.S. and foreign banks regularly to make clear what our position is. We do not sanction Russian food and fertilizer or transactions in food and fertilizer. We’ve made that clear with published general licenses and in any informal conversation with any bank. The UK has followed also with a general license, and the EU has made clear that it’s acceptable to participate in the financing and payment for food and fertilizer.

More broadly, we’ve offered to assist any purchaser from the developing world who claims to have difficulty in contracting to buy Russian food. We did that in direct consultation, some hosted by Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield at the UN, others with teams visiting in Africa with a regular set of virtual conversations.

We’ve received – initially there were one or two small questions, but we’ve received virtually no expressions of concern about the difficulty in paying Russia. So I think the work there in facilitating those payments has been very successful. And again, the measure is that Russia is in fact exporting at or above prewar levels for foodstuffs.

On the ammonia pipeline, we appreciate that it’s important for the world that there be a greater supply of fertilizer, and so we support whatever the parties can agree on this. I don’t think it’s down to Ukraine. I think it’s down to Russia to make clear that this is important to it, and that it will make a deal based on moving that forward. As always, it takes two to say yes to anything, and so I’d be hesitant to ascribe the difficulty here to just one of the parties. But yeah, we think that this would be a sustainable and a good emendation to the deal, and we hope the parties are able to see their way clear to agree on that.

Back to you, Melissa.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you. Alex, we’ll – these – our briefers have a hard stop at 11:45. We can try to squeeze in one, maybe two. Alex, we’ll go to you. Please state your full name and org.

QUESTION: Hi, Melissa. Can you hear me?

MODERATOR: Yes, please go ahead. State your name.

QUESTION: Yes, yeah. Thank you so very much. Yes, this is Alex Raufoglu from Turan News Agency. I have a couple of questions but I’ll try to be brief. Ambassador, you mentioned – Thomas-Greenfield – you mentioned – you actually quoted the Secretary as saying the world shouldn’t need to remind Moscow every few weeks to stop using people’s hunger as a weapon. We hear that, but the fact is that Russia has been using it every two, three months. When it is a time, do you think, for the UN to weigh in with plan B? Should any UN-mandated international force or NATO accompany grain shipments if Russia pulls out of the deal completely?

And Ambassador O’Brien, as your colleagues in Türkiye are working with Erdogan government to break this impasse, I’m just wondering if upcoming election is something that might impact your efforts, if that is in your mind. And finally, you spoke about, a little bit, Russia actual earning from this deal. Can you put it into some numbers how much, by your calculation, Russia has been earning since the beginning of the war, also since the agreement was made? Thanks so much.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah. Alex, look, right now the secretary-general and his team are working with the support of Türkiye to move this grain deal forward and unblock what the Russians are doing. So that’s the focus that we have right now, is getting this thing back on track so that we can continue to get food to the most needy. And in my engagements here in New York, across the board with member states, I’ve encouraged all of those member states to engage with Russia, to tell Russia how important it is that they stop blocking and allow this grain deal to move forward.

I didn’t hear your second question. Something on elections?

QUESTION: Right, the election that is upcoming election in Türkiye. I’m just wondering if it will impact your efforts, if that’s in your mind.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Ah, it’s not. I think Türkiye has been a strong partner on this initiative. It also benefits their country as well. Again, I have no comment on the election, but I suspect that Türkiye will continue to be a good partner for us.

And Jim, I’ll let you take the question on how much because I don’t know the answer to that one.

AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Yeah, I’ll see if we have an estimate of money, but I think, Alex, the point – Russia doesn’t publish its data any longer, and so we know from the UN and we know from the importing countries that is exporting more. But until Russia decides to publish its data, how much more money it’s making, that’s for Russia to answer. It should be a substantial amount more than it made prewar because prices went up for a while, and now they’re trying to drive prices up again. So you’ll have to ask them how much money is enough for them to cut off food to the developing world.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And I think we shared a chart with you that showed you the extent to which there’s been an increase in the Russian Federation’s imports of fertilizer, and it’s pretty significant. When you compare that prior to the war, the figures go back to January 19 – 2019. And you look at where they are in – as late as July of last year, and the numbers keep going up.

MODERATOR: Thank you both. We, unfortunately, do have to end this briefing. Thank you, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield and Ambassador O’Brien, for being here, and the journalists who participated. Again, the transcript will be available at later today, and we will send out additional information on this briefing as well. Thank you again and have a good afternoon.