By Nikola Mikovic, August 14, 2023
If Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan fails to persuade Vladimir Putin to reopen the Black Sea Grain Initiative, people on every continent will feel the pain.
Russia’s decision this summer to suspend the deal allowing Ukrainian grain shipments through the Black Sea will significantly impact not only Ukraine’s economic stability, but food prices around the world.
In the coming weeks and months, Turkey – Moscow’s ‘frenemy’ – is expected to pressure the Kremlin to renew the agreement, and to stop bombing Ukraine’s vital shipping infrastructure. Policy makers in Russia, quite aware of Turkey’s leverage over Moscow, will want to eventually achieve a new grain deal with their Turkish partners, but in a way that lets Russian President Putin save face.
Just last month, Erdogan publicly humiliated Moscow by releasing five commanders from Ukraine’s renowned Azov Regiment. They were being held in a Turkish jail after being captured by Russian troops following the siege of the port city of Mariupol, which Russian forces captured in May 2022. Shortly thereafter, an indignant Putin ignored his “dear friend’s” requests to hold talks about extending the Black Sea Grain Initiative. But Erdogan, having the upper hand, knew that Putin would eventually agree to discuss the grain deal.
On Aug 1, the US Ambassador to the UN said Washington “has seen indications” that Russia might return to discussions on the grain deal. The next day, Erdogan and Putin held a telephone meeting in which the Black Sea Grain Initiative was reportedly a main topic. Erdogan, who sees the grain deal as a “bridge for peace”, told Putin that long-term suspension of the initiative “will not benefit anyone”, and that countries in need of food would suffer the most. Turkey thus intends to press ahead with “intensive efforts” and diplomacy to revive the agreement.
Canada and other nations have also implored Moscow to urgently renew the deal, saying it had already helped 100 million people worldwide from falling into extreme poverty. But given Russia’s close ties with Turkey, clearly Erdogan’s pressure on Putin is more crucial than overtures from Ottawa or other capitals. With Putin expected to visit Turkey in the near future, the two leaders will continue their dialogue, and Erdogan wouldn’t hesitate to put the ball back in Russia’s court by asking Putin to make another “goodwill gesture” and allow Ukraine to resume using the Black Sea shipping lanes.
In the meantime, Moscow wants to exert maximum benefit while Ukraine’s exports are in limbo. In January and February this year, when Ukrainian ports were blockaded, Russian wheat exports increased almost 90 percent compared to a year earlier (just before Russia invaded Ukraine). The major beneficiaries of that bonanza would have been Russia’s “grain oligarchs” as well as Agriculture Minister Dmitry Patrushev (son of Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Russian Security Council) who, according to Russian sources, completely controls the grain export market.
When Russia suspended the grain deal, Ukraine scrambled to find alternative paths to resume exports, including a deal to possibly ship grain through Croatian ports on the Danube River and the Adriatic Sea. Then Russia attacked the important Danube port of Izmail, close to Romanian border, triggering a jump in global wheat prices. At this point Ukraine is restricted to relatively small-volume grain exports via road and rail.
Based on its previous actions, Russia does not likely want to completely obliterate the shipping infrastructure, or impose another full-scale blockade. Last autumn, after Ukraine attacked the Crimean Bridge, Russia unleashed an intensive barrage of missile strikes on Ukrainian energy grid. Much of Ukraine faced blackouts last fall and winter, but the nation’s power plants survived Russian attacks, and by spring Ukraine had stabilized its energy system to the point of resuming electricity exports to Europe. The Kremlin’s strikes were likely a “publicity stunt” meant to show Russia’s own hardliners that Moscow is willing to “fight until victory” (which had become a priority in the wake Russian withdrawal from Kherson in November 2022), rather than a serious attempt to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.
We should expect Russia to use the same strategy regarding port facilities. While Moscow wants to temporarily stop Ukraine from selling its grains, the port infrastructure will likely be damaged but not destroyed.
Aware of this, Kyiv intensified the search for alternatives, and on July 18 Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky proposed extending the grain deal with the United Nations and Turkey — but without Russia. Such an option could be on the table in case of a long-term inactivation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. In the short term, however, Kyiv will likely wait to see if Erdogan’s diplomatic efforts will bring any relief.
Ukraine has also warned that all ships sailing to Russian-controlled Black Sea ports could be targeted by attacks — the same threat that Russia made against civilian vessels traveling to Ukrainian seaports. Hypothetically, Ukraine could simply continue exporting its grains to Turkey, and if Russia did strike any civilian ships, Ankara could deploy its navy ships to the Ukrainian ports of Odesa and Mykolaiv to ensure safety of the grain deal.
Avoiding such a diplomatically risky outcome is why Russia is targeting Ukrainian ports rather than international ships that are carrying Ukrainian grains. It is no secret that Moscow aims to replace Ukrainian grain supplies to Africa and deprive Kyiv of crucial revenues. Russia also wants to sell its image as a “friend of Africa”, which is why Putin promised to continue providing six African nations with Russian grains free of charge.
In this instance, there is a dark paradox as the Kremlin attempts to kill two birds with one stone: preventing Ukraine from exporting its grains, while also increasing Russia’s influence in Africa —even though millions of people on that continent would be the greatest victims a long-term suspension of the grain deal.
Nikola Mikovic is a Europe-based freelance journalist, researcher and analyst who reports on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.