Russian warships practise seizing Black Sea cargo ships amid fears of escalation

Russia is threatening ships in the Black Sea - in what could further escalate the global food crisis.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY- JULY 17: TQ Samsun last grain ship is off the Black Sea. on July 17, 2023 in Istanbul, Turkey. Russia announced that it withdrew from the Grain Corridor Agreement, which was signed last year under the mediation of Turkey and the United Nations (UN), which ensures the transportation of millions of tons of grain stuck in Ukrainian ports to the world. (Photo by Sercan Ozkurnazli/ dia images via Getty Images)
The last grain ship export as part of the Black Sea Grain Initiative on Monday. (Getty Images)

Fears Russia could attack ships in the Black Sea have stoked concerns of a further escalation in the global food crisis.

The latest focal point of geo-political tensions sparked by the Ukraine war came after Moscow withdrew from a deal that had allowed Kyiv to export grain through a safe corridor on the sea during the conflict.

It means ships heading to Ukraine's Black Sea ports could be considered military targets.

It means the safety of civilian ships will no longer be guaranteed, potentially leading to further increases in grain prices. Ukraine’s grain is a key part of the global food chain. It has vowed to defy Russia’s blockade on its grain export ports.

While Moscow's ambassador to Washington has denied any plan to attack ships, Russia's defence ministry said on Friday that its Black Sea fleet had practised apprehending ships and firing rockets at "floating targets".

It also came as Russia attacked Ukrainian food export facilities for a fourth day in a row. An agricultural facility in the Odesa region was hit, with Ukraine saying it had destroyed 100 tonnes of peas and 20 tonnes of barley.

Why is the Black Sea important?

The Black Sea is the key export point for Ukrainian grain.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year, its military vessels blocked Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea. This caused food prices around the world to soar.

TOPSHOT - A man stands with his dog as smoke rises after an attack by Russian army in Odessa, on April 3, 2022. - Air strikes rocked Ukraine's strategic Black Sea port Odessa early Sunday morning, according to an interior ministry official, after Kyiv had warned that Russia was trying to consolidate its troops in the south. (Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP) (Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images)
Russia's targeting of Ukrainian ports at the beginning of the war caused global food prices to rise. (AFP via Getty Images)

A resolution, brokered by the UN and Turkey, was signed in July last year to open a safe corridor, allowing exports to resume. As part of the the Black Sea Grain Initiative, concessions were offered to Russia, with UN officials agreeing to help Russia with its food and fertiliser exports.

In the past 12 months, the initiative has enabled more than 1,000 ships, carrying 33 million tonnes of grain and other foodstuffs, to safely leave Ukrainian ports.

However, Russia withdrew from the scheme on Monday, claiming its requirements from the deal had not been met.

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In a tirade against "the West", Vladimir Putin accused it of using the deal "for political blackmail, and in addition... made it a tool for enriching transnational corporations, speculators in the global grain market".

As of Thursday, Russia said "all ships proceeding to Ukrainian ports in Black Sea waters will be considered as potential carriers of military cargo". It is also said to have laid sea mines in the approaches to Ukrainian ports.

The Kremlin also accused Kyiv of carrying out "terrorist attacks" in the area.

And with Russia's rhetoric about practising the seizing of ships, there is a bleak outlook for grain exports. The US and EU have pledged to help Ukraine with exports, though this will not be at the same scale enabled by the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

How important is the deal in the food crisis?

In short, very important.

On Friday UN aid chief Martin Griffiths warned the end of the deal could be fatal for some, saying: "Some will go hungry, some will starve, many may die."

Ukrainian grain is crucial for global food security. And the Black Sea Grain Initiative had been effective in bringing down prices, as this EU graphic demonstrates.

Wheat and maize prices went down during the Black Sea Grain Initiative. (EU)
Wheat and maize prices went down during the Black Sea Grain Initiative. (EU)

However, global wheat prices have already risen sharply since Russia's withdrawal. On Wednesday, market prices in the US and Europe increased by more than 8%.

The International Monetary Fund also said Russia's move "worsens the food security outlook and risks adding to global food inflation, especially for low-income countries".

In the UK, the latest food inflation figures released this week showed prices fell from 18.3% in May to 17.3% in June. But the retail industry has warned supply chains remained volatile and Putin’s decision to pull out of the grain supply agreement could push up prices for staples once again.

Russia has insisted it is negotiating exports of food to countries most in need after quitting the Black Sea grain initiative. It said no agreements had yet been signed.