Ukraine war: Russia U-turns on grain deal after Putin's attempt at escalation fails

It took four days of determined international diplomacy, spearheaded by Turkey and the UN, for Russia to rejoin a deal allowing for the export of Ukrainian grain to world markets.

Also known as the Black Sea grain initiative this was a deal to allow grain ships to depart safely from Ukrainian ports. It which was brokered by the UN and Turkey in July and which became operational on August 1.

Since then, an estimated 9.5 million tonnes of grain and other foodstuffs have been moved out of Ukraine under the deal. According to UN estimates, this “indirectly prevented some 100 million people from falling into extreme poverty”.

Following an attack on the Russian Black Sea fleet’s base in the port city of Sevastopol in occupied Crimea, Moscow had suspended its participation in the Black Sea grain initiative on October 29. Pulling out of the grain deal immediately raised serious concerns of a worsening global food crisis.

Global prices for wheat and corn rose by up to 6% in response to the Russian announcement. The decision also affected more than 200 ships involved in getting Ukrainian grain to world markets through a safe sea corridor from the Ukrainian ports of Chornomorsk, Odesa and Pivdennyi to Turkey. International maritime insurers, too, suspended underwriting, and even quoting, cover for new shipments.

The combined and linked problems of supply shortages and rising prices is particularly problematic for low-income countries. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the war in Ukraine has altered “the global patterns of food production and supply”. This has led to a situation in which, says the IRC, “inflation in low-income countries has surged to almost 90%, with 345 million people estimated to experience acute food insecurity this year”.

The World Food Programme has pointed out that an already existing global food crisis has been further exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. It has become a major driver of instability and conflict – including in severely affected countries like Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Unsurprisingly, there was immediate and widespread condemnation of Russia’s actions, led by UN secretary-general António Guterres, who suspended his departure for the Arab League Summit in Algiers by a day to focus on the issue. Guterres noted that, as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, grain had piled up in Ukrainian silos and ships had been unable to safely leave with their cargos, meaning that “increasing numbers of people found themselves on the brink of famine”.

Following a flurry of diplomatic activity, especially by Turkey, Russia made a U-turn on November 3. Putin claimed that the Kremlin had received sufficient written guarantees from Ukraine that the safe corridor would not be used for attacks on Russian forces, something immediately denied by the Ukrainian foreign ministry.

Despite Russia’s withdrawal from the deal, the other three parties to the Black Sea grain initiative – the UN, Turkey and Ukraine – have remained committed to keep to the deal as much as possible in order to continue to help vital Ukrainian exports. As a result, there was almost no disruption to Ukrainian exports.

Russian pressure

Even though Russian attempts at escalation failed, Tthere’s no escaping the fact that this was another calculated move by Putin to escalate an already deeply worrying crisis. Part of the Russian strategy appeared to be to shift the blame onto Ukraine and its allies.

The statement from the Russian foreign ministry suspending Moscow’s participation in the deal accused Ukraine of using “the cover of the humanitarian corridor set up for the implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative” for its attack on the Russian Black Sea fleet.

The statement further alleged that this was a terrorist attack “led by British specialists”. It had apparently been directed “against Russian ships ensuring the functioning of the humanitarian corridor”. Russia has provided no evidence to back up any of this.

Another part of Russia’s strategy is to continue to increase pressure on Kyiv to return to the negotiation table. Just days before Russia suspended the grain deal, Vladimir Putin commented at the annual meeting of the Valdai Club – a Moscow-based thinktank and discussion forum which he has a close association with – that Russia was ready to talk and that the US should force Ukraine to restart negotiations.

This “offer” of negotiations, was reiterated by the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in a TV interview on the lessons of the Cuban missile crisis. But it remains unacceptable to Ukraine and its western partners for as long as Russian troops occupy Ukrainian territory.

This has been a long-established Ukrainian position and is unlikely to change. Any agreement to negotiations now would most likely imply a ceasefire and freeze the frontlines at a time when Ukraine is still making at least modest gains in liberating parts of Russian-occupied territories – especially around Kherson in the south of the country. Meanwhile, Russian efforts to capture more of the Donetsk region have made very little, if any, progress.

Russian efforts to freeze the frontline have also included more attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure. A barrage of missile attacks hit 18 civilian infrastructure facilities across ten regions of Ukraine, leading to widespread power cuts, including in the capital Kyiv.

This, of course, is another way in which Moscow seeks to put pressure on Ukraine’s leaders to cut a deal. But with more than 70% of Ukrainians still supporting fighting until victory, the chances of the Kremlin succeeding in this regard also appear limited.

Future escalation remains on the cards

When confirming that Russia would resume its participation in the grain deal, Putin also made it clear that he reserved his “right” to withdraw again. Moreover, there is also a danger that the deal, which runs out by November 19, will not be renewed.

In either case, further Russian escalation would be conceivable. Moscow could start intercepting grain ships in the safe sea corridor and carry out “inspections” of its own as a form of thinly veiled harassment of civilian shipping operators, putting additional pressure on maritime insurers as well. “Accidents” with mines would be a possible further step and ultimately the Kremlin could resume a full-scale blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports.

None of this is a foregone conclusion, and one of the key lessons from this episode is that Russia wields less power than is often assumed and lacks the military capabilities for now to escalate its illegal war in the Black Sea. Russian weakness and western determination, in this case, combined to prevent an escalation with potentially disastrous consequences for global food supplies and the tens of millions of people dependent on them.

Yet, the temporary suspension of its participation in the Black Sea grain initiative also indicates that Putin remains prepared for this kind of reckless and cowardly move by the Kremlin in an increasingly desperate game of brinkmanship.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Stefan Wolff receives funding from the United States Institute of Peace. He is a past recipient of grants from the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK, the British Academy, the NATO Science for Peace Programme, the EU Framework Programmes 6 and 7 and Horizon 2020, as well as the EU's Jean Monnet Programme. He is a Senior Research Fellow of the Foreign Policy Centre in London and Co-Coordinator of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions.