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Diplomacy Watch: Russia plays hardball with Black Sea grain deal

Diplomacy Watch: Russia plays hardball with Black Sea grain deal

A food crisis looms as Moscow accuses the West of not keeping to its side of the bargain and starts attacking port infrastructure.


Russia officially withdrew from the Black Sea grain deal this week in a move that could destabilize global food prices and lead to shortages around the world. The deal, which was originally agreed to one year ago this month after mediation by the United Nations and Turkey, represented one the few diplomatic achievements since Russia’s invasion. 

The agreement has been extended three times since last July — most recently in May — and expired on Monday. Ukraine has exported more than 30 million tons of grain and other foodstuffs under the initiative, according to U.N. data. 

As Responsible Statecraft’s Connor Echols explained last month, the deal has already been on life support due to Moscow’s constant wrangling over the agreement. Russia has been threatening to end the agreement for months, complaining that the implementation of the deal has been one-sided and that Western sanctions have prevented Moscow from exporting their own grain, eroding one of the key incentives for them to make this deal.

Nations in Africa and elsewhere have relied on Russia and Ukraine for much of their wheat imports. “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,” wrote Echols in June. “According to Africa Development Bank estimates, the war has already led to a shortage of roughly 30 million tons of grain in Africa.”

Russian leaders claim that they remain willing to return to the deal if restrictions on their exports are lifted.“As soon as the Russian part is fulfilled, the Russian side will immediately return to the implementation of that deal,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said on Monday. 

Ukraine will still be able to export grain in the absence of the deal, but, according to Politico “its end will not come without pain. Ukraine’s farmers will take a hit. And increased logistical costs mean they will have to sell at a discounted rate, say analysts.”

Washington has urged Russia to reverse this decision, with National Security Council spokesman calling it a “military act of aggression.” Hours after Russia said that it would be leaving the agreement, the United States Agency for International Development announced that it would be giving $250 million in aid for Ukrainian farmers, as part of a larger tranche of humanitarian assistance. 

Experts argue that restoring the accord is in the best interest of all involved. “Russia’s withdrawal from the deal is part of classic negotiating behavior, after its repeated demands went unaddressed by partners to the deal,” said the Quincy Institute’s director of grand strategy George Beebe. “Putin still has a vested interest in reaching an agreement here, and Washington shouldn’t be cowed by the political costs of engaging Russia in pursuit of a deal that eases pressure on American pocketbooks, stabilizes food security in the Global South, and keeps a key sector of Ukraine’s economy afloat.”

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

—The Kremlin acknowledged on Monday that it knew "very well" that NATO and the United States were providing intelligence to Ukraine but this was not a reason to cut off diplomatic ties. "In the most acute moments, we need channels for dialogue," Kremlin spokesman Peskov said. The comments came after an attack on the bridge linking Russia and Crimea. Moscow blamed Ukraine for the attack, and rejected the accusation that the decision to withdraw from the grain deal was made in retaliation. 

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Russia had resumed its blockade of ships carrying food from Ukraine and that its military had bombarded Odessa, “specifically targeting the ability to export grain,” according to Ukrainian officials.

— The Ukrainian counteroffensive appears to be progressing slowly. 

The Washington Post reports: “Ukraine is making limited advances in its counteroffensive against Russian forces but has yet to employ the kind of larger-scale operations that American officials believe could enable a breakthrough, officials and analysts say, deepening questions among some of Ukraine’s chief backers about whether Kyiv can move fast enough to match a finite supply of munitions and arms.”

Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Tuesday that the ongoing effort was “far from a failure” but that “there's a lot of fighting left to go and I'll stay with what we said before: This is going to be long. It's going to be hard. It's going to be bloody."

— South Africa announced this week that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not attend the summit of BRICS nations hosted by Johannesburg next month. Because South Africa is a member of the International Criminal Court and the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Putin in March, they would have been obliged to arrest the Russian leader for alleged war crimes if he set foot in the country. Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov will attend in his place. 

— The Vatican’s peace envoy, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, visited Washington this week, meeting with President Joe Biden to discuss the war, and particularly the plight of Ukrainian children taken to Russia. Pope Francis has repeatedly called for an end to the war, and he was joined by more than 230 religious leaders who expressed support for a negotiated settlement and published a press release to coincide with Zuppi’s visit. 

“The time to begin building a just peace is now, not after every military option has been exhausted,” said Michele Dunne, Executive Director of Franciscan Action Network.

U.S. State Department news:

In a press briefing on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller reacted to Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal. 

“I think it ought to be quite clear to everyone in the world right now that Russia is using food as a weapon of war – not just against the Ukrainian people, but against all the people in the world, especially the most underdeveloped countries who depend on grain from the region,” he said. 

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