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Diplomacy Watch: Putin blinks, returns to Black Sea grain deal after just 4 days

Diplomacy Watch: Putin blinks, returns to Black Sea grain deal after just 4 days

The move signals that Russia has lines it’s not willing to cross, but it also shows how hawkish elements in Moscow want to change that.


Russia announced on Saturday that it planned to pull out of the Black Sea grain deal days after Ukrainian drones attacked Russian warships near the Crimean city of Sevastopol. Moscow claimed that the move violated the agreement and accused the British of helping to carry out the attack.

The decision threatened to put an end to the widely acclaimed diplomatic initiative, which has alleviated a global food crisis by allowing approximately 10 million metric tons of grain to be shipped out of Ukrainian ports since July.

In response, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Nations — the other main parties to the deal — called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bluff and continued to send grain ships through the Black Sea.

On Wednesday, Putin flipped on his decision and announced that Russia would rejoin the deal. Russia justified the decision by saying that it had “managed to obtain necessary written guarantees from Ukraine not to use the humanitarian corridor and Ukrainian ports ... for military actions against the Russian Federation.”

But others had a more straightforward read of the situation. “Faced with the choice of sinking third-country merchant ships or an embarrassing climbdown, Putin chose a climbdown,” tweeted Yaroslav Trofimov of the Wall Street Journal.

Putin seems to have been sobered by the backlash to his brinkmanship. Now, he says that he won’t do anything to obstruct the supply of grain from Ukraine to Turkey even if he withdraws from the deal again in the future. Put simply, Putin blinked.

Among other things, the episode should assuage Western fears that Putin will use the deal as leverage to extract concessions from other world powers at the G20 later this month. And it signals that, despite his penchant for brutality in military affairs, Putin does have some lines that he’s not willing to cross (in this case, shooting at commercial ships carrying potentially life-saving food).

On a less positive note, it also gives a glimpse into how domestic pressure could influence Putin’s future decision-making on diplomacy. As the New York Times noted, hawkish Russian bloggers — some of whom have millions of followers on social media — have harshly criticized the decision to rejoin the deal as a sign of “weakness,” with one even saying that it looks like “a humiliating defeat for Moscow.”

It’s difficult to assess exactly how much these attacks will affect Kremlin policy, but there’s little doubt that Putin will have them in the back of his mind next time he’s faced with a potentially embarrassing decision.

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— President Joe Biden lost his temper with Zelensky in June when the Ukrainian leader began listing off his further needs moments after Biden promised an additional $1 billion in military aid, according to NBC News. The pair appear to have patched things up, but, as NBC News notes, the spat could be a harbinger of more challenging politics around future aid packages. While Congress has so far been happy to sign off on enormous amounts of assistance, some on both sides of the aisle have started to question whether billions of dollars in further support is the best way to allocate America’s resources.

— On Saturday, Ukraine and Russia exchanged more than 100 prisoners of war, according to the New York Times. The trade shows that the two adversaries are keeping at least some lines of communication open, though talks on broader issues remain stalled.

— On Thursday and Friday, the Group of Seven (G7) held a series of foreign minister-level meetings that focused on countering China and coordinating support for Ukraine, according to Reuters.

— Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embaló met with Putin last week, saying after the meeting that the Russian leader is “ready for negotiations with President Zelensky,” according to i24 News. Embaló shared that message with Zelensky during a subsequent meeting, earning a skeptical response from the Ukrainian president. “In order for there to be bridges between one country and another, the one needs to not blow up the other’s infrastructure,” Zelensky said.

— In the New York Times, Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University argued that the United States should push for peace talks in Ukraine. 

“To limit the potential for a wider conflict between NATO and Russia, Washington needs Kyiv to be more transparent about its war plans and U.S. officials need more input into Kyiv’s conduct of the war. [...]

Sooner rather than later, the West needs to move Ukraine and Russia from the battlefield to the negotiating table, brokering a diplomatic effort to shut the war down and arrive at a territorial settlement.”

U.S. State Department news:

In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Ned Price confirmed that Biden does not plan to speak with Putin at the G20 later this month. “I don’t expect that there will be discussions between the United States and Russia in the context of the G20,” Price said.

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