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Diplomacy Watch: Brinkmanship on grain deal could frustrate Russia’s friends

Diplomacy Watch: Brinkmanship on grain deal could frustrate Russia’s friends

The Kremlin risks alienating African allies at a time when it can ill afford to lose partners in the Global South.


The grain harvest in Ukraine began last weekend. Given the war and other challenges facing farmers, outputs are expected to drop as much as 15 percent when compared to last year.

But a larger problem looms as threshers whir through the country’s fields. The Black Sea grain deal — an agreement that allows for the export of Ukrainian foodstuffs by ship — appears likely to expire for good next month.

The deal, which was signed last July following mediation by Turkey and the United Nations, has been in difficulty for months now. Russia has threatened to tear it up on multiple occasions over claims that Western sanctions have prevented Moscow from exporting ammonia through a pipeline to the Pivdennyi port in Ukraine, making it impossible to implement the agreement’s provisions on Russian fertilizer exports.

Indeed, Russia has so far been unable to transport any of the 2.5 million tons of ammonia that it usually sends through Pivdennyi port each year. In protest, the Kremlin decided last month to stop allowing grain ships to go to the port, which is one of only three protected by the deal. 

Moscow’s wrangling has left the deal on life support, with shipments at their lowest level since the agreement was signed, according to the UN. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that there are “no grounds” to extend the deal given what Russia sees as its one-sided implementation.

“Unfortunately, [the UN is] not managing to exert the necessary influence on the countries of the collective West in order to fulfill this Russian part of the agreement,” Peskov told reporters.

Moscow has previously said that it would continue to allow shipments if the deal expires, but it remains unclear how convincing that argument will prove for shipping companies, which will likely face challenges to insuring vessels to sail in such uncertain waters.

If the agreement collapses, Russia will have to answer for it with many of the country’s friends across the Global South, who often bemoan the impact that the conflict has had on world food prices. According to Africa Development Bank estimates, the war has already led to a shortage of roughly 30 million tons of grain in Africa.

This was top of mind when a delegation of African leaders traveled to Ukraine and Russia this week in an ambitious attempt to kickstart peace negotiations. “This conflict is affecting Africa negatively,” argued South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during a press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The group — which included the presidents of South Africa, Comoros, Senegal, and Zambia in addition to officials from Egypt, Uganda, and Republic of Congo — found little interest in Ukraine for its peace proposal. While much of the plan lines up with Kyiv’s previous suggestions for talks, the call for a ceasefire was a bridge too far for Ukrainian officials, who argue (as many militaries in history have) that the Kremlin would simply use such a move to reconstitute its forces and plan a new attack.

Perhaps more surprising was the African delegation’s reception in Moscow. Putin reportedly told the African leaders — many of whom have stayed neutral or leaned toward Russia in the war — that much of their proposal was misguided. The Kremlin said that some aspects of the plan were workable but didn’t reveal which ones, saying only that “dialogue with the Africans will continue.”

In other words, Putin snubbed some of his only allies while running roughshod over the grain deal that many in Africa are relying on to keep global food prices from reaching unsustainable levels. The string of decisions highlights just how difficult it will be to get Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table anytime soon.

Ramaphosa, for his part, said Russia and Ukraine have both agreed to stay in touch with the group, leaving the door open for future attempts at reaching a ceasefire. But, like Brazil’s president before it, this delegation has returned home with little to show for its efforts besides frustration and some bad press.

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— Available evidence suggests that Russia may have intentionally blown up the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam, setting off an environmental disaster in Russian-controlled southern Ukraine as fighting heats up in the region, according to the New York Times. The report argues that, though the outside of the structure has been hit in attacks by both Russia and Ukraine, experts believe that a targeted explosion from inside the dam is the most likely reason for its collapse. The Times does not address the possibility that Ukrainian agents or another group could have covertly sabotaged the dam.

— Ukraine’s Western allies announced billions of dollars in support for Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction at a conference in London this week, according to AP News. Most of the pledges came from the European Union, which promised to provide $55 billion through 2027. The funds are in part meant to help Kyiv meet the standards for EU membership. While Chinese officials did not attend the conference, Beijing is also expected to play a prominent role in rebuilding Ukraine’s battered economy after the war.

— National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will meet this weekend with officials from Global South countries that have taken neutral stances on the war in an attempt to persuade the leaders to change course, according to the Financial Times. Attendees will include officials from Brazil, India, South Africa, Turkey, and possibly China, according to the Times, which reported that Ukraine had requested the meeting. Meanwhile, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Washington, where he spoke with U.S. officials about a wide range of topics, including the war in Ukraine. Details of his conversations with President Joe Biden remain limited.

— Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed his Turkish counterpart to support Sweden’s bid to join NATO ahead of the alliance’s summit next month, according to Reuters. Turkey argues that Sweden has not done enough to crack down on groups that Ankara considers to be terrorists. Notably, next month’s summit will also likely not produce a formal invitation for Ukraine to join NATO, though some alliance members have signaled support for other forms of security guarantees short of full membership.

U.S. State Department news:

In a Wednesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said the U.S. welcomes “any effort to help end Russia’s war against Ukraine” but argued that Moscow is the one blocking chances for any long-term peace. “Throughout the entirety of this conflict, Russia has not shown any meaningful interest in wanting to engage in legitimate conversations around a durable and just and lasting peace,” Patel said.

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