Talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ended without an agreement to restart a deal under which Russia provided safe passage to ships moving grain across the Black Sea, including ships leaving from Ukrainian ports.
The deal, struck last year, was meant to safeguard the supply of agricultural commodities from Ukraine and Russia to global markets, where they account for a large percentage of the supply of wheat, corn, sunflower oil and other staple foods. Russia is waging war against Ukraine, including attacks on its Black Sea ports, making the region hazardous for shipping.
While it was in place, starting in July 2022, the deal allowed more than 1,000 vessels carrying 32.9 million metric tons of grain to transit the Black Sea safely. Russia announced this July that it would not renew the arrangement, causing an immediate halt to grain shipments.
Cutting off shipments from Ukraine threatens to worsen a global food crisis that has seen the price of staple foodstuffs soar, making it difficult for people in many developing countries to feed themselves, and straining the aid budgets of global relief agencies.
Speaking at a press conference in the Russian city of Sochi, where he and Erdogan met on Monday, Putin said Russia would only return to the deal if the West fulfilled what he said were its obligations under the agreement, including a promise to lift any sanctions on the export of Russian food and fertilizers. He said that sanctions remain in place that are keeping Russian agricultural exports from making it to global markets.
The large number of economic penalties imposed on Russia by Western countries because of its invasion of Ukraine do not include sanctions on food and fertilizer exports. However, other sanctions, including the severing of Russian banks from the global payments system and a refusal to allow Western companies to insure Russian ships, have sharply curtailed grain exports.
Putin has described this situation as a Western violation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
“We are not against this deal. We are ready to immediately return to it as soon as the promises made to us are fulfilled. That’s all,” Putin said. “So far, no obligations toward Russia have been fulfilled.”
The U.S. and other Western countries deny Putin’s claim that they have failed to live up to the terms of the deal. When Russia announced its decision to back out in July, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement that read, in part, “Despite Russia’s claims, the U.N. has facilitated record Russian exports of food, coordinating with the private sector and with the U.S., E.U., and U.K. to clarify any concerns raised by Russia. As we have consistently made clear, no G7 sanctions are in place on Russian food and fertilizer exports. Russia unfortunately does not contribute to the World Food Program, and its exports focus on higher income countries, not the world’s poorest.”
Erdogan, who helped broker the original deal in 2022, said he still believes it is possible to restart the agreement.
“We believe that we will reach a solution that will meet the expectations in a short time,” he told reporters at the news conference on Monday.
The Turkish leader also called on Ukraine to moderate its approach to the agreement.
“Ukraine needs to especially soften its approaches in order for it to be possible for joint steps to be taken with Russia,” Erdogan said.
He did not specify the kind of changes in Ukraine’s approach he was recommending.
Also on Monday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba addressed Erdogan’s comments, saying that Kyiv is willing to talk but would not bow to what he described as Russian blackmail.
He told reporters that if Ukraine makes concessions to Russia now, the Kremlin will only demand further concessions in the future.
Argument over impact
Both Russia and the Western countries demanding a restart of the grain deal use data from the U.N.-affiliated Black Sea Grain Initiative-Joint Coordination Centre in Istanbul to support their version of the deal’s importance.
Russian officials dispute Western claims that Putin is weaponizing food and disproportionately affecting poor countries, arguing that the United Nations’ own data shows that 80% of grain exports that shipped while the deal was in place went to the world’s high-income and upper-middle-income nations. Western officials point to data from the same source, showing that 57% of the grain went to developing countries.
The discrepancy is largely explained by the fact that the U.N. classifies China as both a developing nation and an upper-middle-income nation. Grain shipments to China accounted for 24% of the shipments allowed under the deal.
Relief agencies clear
Among aid organizations around the world, there is little dispute that the impact of the suspension of the deal will be extremely negative for the global poor, both by pushing prices paid by end-consumers higher in the near term and by reducing supply in the longer term.
An analysis by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, published after Russia withdrew from the deal, warned that in addition to making existing grain more expensive to ship and thus more costly for global consumers, the high transportation costs will reduce farmers’ income, making them likely to plant less grain in the future.
“The reduced production also poses risks for global markets. With global grain stocks at low levels and little rebuilding this current year, prices will remain volatile and responsive to potential production shortfalls,” the group found. “Thus, a diminished Ukraine leaves a smaller buffer if major global producers fall short.”