The Black Sea Grain Deal, What Now?

The Black Sea Grain Deal, What Now?

The Black Sea Grain Deal, What Now?

Heatwaves unseen in the past, wildfires, and huge floods have led some scientists to say that “The earth is in uncharted territory.” So is the world. The war in Ukraine grinds on. Washington’s strategic competition with China has led to an adversarial relationship between the world’s two leading powers. Democracy is in decline, the “judicial overhaul” proposed by Israel’s far-right government being a sad example. Problems of food security are no longer on the horizon but much closer. Migration has become a big challenge for well-to-do countries. There is not the slightest indication that there is an awareness of the need to confront global problems through international cooperation.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on July 17, that the Black Sea Grain Initiative was terminated by Russia as the part of the deal concerning Russia has not been fulfilled. And the UN Secretary-General Guterres told the press that he deeply regrets Russia’s decision; that he had sent a letter to President Putin with a new proposal to keep the Black Sea Initiative alive and was deeply disappointed that his proposals went unheeded. [i]

A press release issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs the next day criticized UN Secretary-General Guterres in exceptionally strong language for twisting the facts about the implementation of the Istanbul agreements again and acting in violation of all the laws of diplomatic correspondence by making public his letter to President Putin.[ii]

On July 19, a statement by the Russian Defense Ministry announced that as of the following day, all vessels sailing in the waters of the Black Sea to Ukrainian ports will be regarded as potential carriers of military cargo. And accordingly, the countries of such vessels will be considered to be involved in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of the Kyiv regime. Moreover, the statement said, “… a number of sea areas in the north-western and south-eastern parts of the international waters of the Black Sea have been declared temporarily dangerous for navigation.” [iii] Simply put, Russia imposed a naval blockade on Ukrainian ports.

As for the land battles, the Washington Post reported last week that Ukraine is making limited advances in its counteroffensive against Russian forces but has yet to engage in larger-scale operations American officials believe could enable a breakthrough.  A US official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share the American assessment of the operation, said “Applying all those capabilities in a way that enables them to breach those obstacles, but do it quickly, is paramount.” At the same time, the official added, as Ukrainian forces face intense attacks from antitank munitions and armed Russian drones, “We don’t underestimate or underappreciate that it’s a very tough situation.” [iv] Many wish such comments to stop as they raise questions regarding who the commander-in-chief of Ukraine is.

None of this bodes well for the revival of the Black Sea Grain Initiative or a new grain deal. However, despite terminating the Initiative, Moscow may not wish to prevent the export of Ukrainian grain and fertilizers as long as the war lasts. Since Russia ended the grain deal, US media has frequently referred to the “global condemnation” of Russia’s decision. So far this is an exaggeration. But if the present deadlock were to continue for long, the Global South which has so far refrained from taking sides in the conflict may start to feel uneasy with Russia and this would be a development that Moscow would try to avoid. On July 27–28, St Petersburg will host the second Russia-Africa Summit and Russia-Africa Economic and Humanitarian Forum. In preparation for the meeting, President Putin, in an article today, referring to the Black Sea Grain Initiative, said:

“… the so-called “grain deal,” whose initial purpose was to ensure global food security, reduce the threat of hunger and help the poorest countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America – the reason why Russia undertook the obligation to facilitate its implementation in the first place. This “deal,” however, while it was publicly advertised by the West as a gesture of goodwill that benefited Africa, has in fact been shamelessly used solely for the enrichment of large US and European businesses that exported and resold grain from Ukraine… I want to give assurances that our country is capable of replacing the Ukrainian grain both on a commercial and free-of-charge basis, especially as we expect another record harvest this year.[v]

On July 20, aware of the position taken by the Global South, President Zelensky had a phone call with Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed Ali. Mr. Zelensky noted that Ukraine had delivered almost 300 thousand tons of food to Ethiopia under the Black Sea Grain Initiative and another 90 thousand tons of grain under the Grain from Ukraine humanitarian initiative. “The voice of Ethiopia, the African Union, the whole of Africa is very important to us,” he said. And his economic advisor Ustenko, said that when the Russians destroyed 60,000 tons of grain in the port of Odesa with missiles the day before, they actually left 300,000 people without food. And Secretary-General António Guterres strongly condemned Russian attacks on Odesa and other Ukrainian ports in recent days.

Thus, finding a solution allowing for the export of Russian and Ukrainian wheat and fertilizers through the Black Sea, particularly in light of the recent escalation now extending to maritime areas and port facilities, is once again an urgent but equally tough task for all involved.

But the biggest challenge is ending the war in Ukraine. Last week, GLOBSEC, a think tank based in Slovakia, published a report which said that about 30% of Ukraine’s territory (174 000 sq. km) has been exposed to intense combat operations. This area requires survey and clearance from the vast amounts of explosive ordnance left by the invaders. Ukraine is consequently the largest mined territory in the world surpassing such former frontrunners as Afghanistan and Syria. [vi] Expanded use of cluster munitions by both sides would only make the situation worse and mine clearing would take decades.

Last week South African President Ramaphosa confirmed that President Putin will not attend the BRICS summit in Johannesburg next month. This is because South Africa is a party to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and on 17 March 2023, the Court issued an arrest warrant for President Putin. But Türkiye is not a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.  Neither is the US. [vii] At present 123 countries are States Parties to the Statute.

In brief, it seems that President Putin will travel to Türkiye in August as announced by President Erdoğan. The visit and its preparatory work are likely to enable the latter to step once again on the global diplomatic stage as the primary line of communication with President Putin on the grain issue. But this is likely to be more than the export of Russian and Ukrainian grain. Because in view of the decision to declare all vessels sailing in the waters of the Black Sea to Ukrainian ports as potential carriers of military cargo, this is also a Black Sea security issue as Moscow must know. And it is no secret that Washington and some of its NATO partners are not happy with the Montreux Convention and would miss no opportunity to challenge it whereas this has always been a redline for Ankara. For Türkiye the Montreux Convention is among the founding documents of the Republic.

In their endeavor to revive the Black Sea Grain Initiative or find a new path to serve the same purpose, Türkiye and the UN would have to negotiate with Kyiv and Moscow and which of the two would prove the “more difficult partner” remains to be seen. Last Friday, President Erdoğan spoke by phone with President Zelensky. The two leaders discussed in detail the extension of the Black Sea grain deal. The parties need to be fully conscious of the fact that governments around the world would be watching grain diplomacy closely since for some of them this is far more than a distant foreign and security policy issue. It is about feeding their people.

Following President Erdoğan’s visit to the Gulf, it was reported that Saudi Arabia and Türkiye are trying to broker a deal to repatriate Ukrainian children who have been taken to Russia and placed in children’s homes or adopted by Russian families. In other words, “grain diplomacy” could involve more than grains.

This week Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli Prime Minister were to visit Türkiye but Mr. Netanyahu’s visit, the first by an Israeli Prime Minister in fifteen years, has been postponed as a result of his heart surgery.

Hopefully, after more than a decade of trouble-making and self-defeating adventures which started with the misguided intervention in Syria, the restoration of relations with the Gulf states and Israel represents a genuine change of heart in Ankara’s foreign policy going beyond the urgent needs of Türkiye’s battered economy.