Unfortunately, one of the negative consequences of active hostilities is observed in the foreign trade relations of the countries participating in the conflict. A temporary danger zone does not guarantee safety along trade communication routes. Disrupting the prior steady trading system is costly to the trade balance and frequently leads to major humanitarian crises, such as in export-dependent countries. It is true that the scarcity of certain goods, such as grains (like wheat, for example), on the global market poses a severe danger to the food security of entire nations. It’s no coincidence that a Russian proverb says: “Bread is the staff of life.”
One of Turkey’s diplomatic achievements was the grain deal initiative in the Black Sea. An agreement on the grain deal involving Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and the UN, originally signed for 120 days, became possible in Istanbul on July 22, 2022, thanks to Ankara’s mediation mission, which retained its cooperation with Moscow and Kiev. As you know, the present agreement included two packages. In particular:
The first part involved building a secure sea passage in the Black Sea’s northwest so that foreign merchant ships could export Ukrainian wheat from three Ukrainian ports—Odessa, Chernomorsk, and Yuzhny—through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to foreign markets—most notably, the grain-starved nations of Africa and Asia;
The second part provided for the export of Russian wheat and other agricultural products (in particular fertilizers) to foreign markets under a UN guarantee, the connection of the Russian Agricultural Bank to the SWIFT payment system, the unblocking of deliveries of agricultural machinery and spare parts to Russia, the resumption of operation of the Togliatti-Odessa ammonia pipeline, and the lifting of restrictions on the access of Russian ships to foreign ports.
A Joint Coordination Center was formed in Istanbul as part of the agreements made to swiftly address any problems relating to the operation of the grain deal. This agreement has previously been renewed three times: once in November 2022 for 120 days and once in March and May 2023 for 60 days each.
Russia responsibly fulfilled all its commitments to guarantee a humanitarian sea corridor for the transit of Ukrainian wheat, and the first part of the deal was properly implemented, bringing considerable commercial dividends for Ukraine, Turkey, and some European countries. However, Russia’s own interests, as expressed in the Memorandum with the UN, i.e., the second part of the package deal, were not met on any single item. A situation like this, which suggests a “one-sided game,” could not last forever at the expense of and to the detriment of the interests of the Russian Federation, which is, in fact, the main guarantor of the grain deal’s implementation.
Additionally, Russian President Vladimir Putin has often remarked that it is somewhat exaggerated and inaccurate that the absence of Ukrainian wheat shipments to international markets will cause a global food disaster. In particular, the Russian head of state emphasized in this regard: “Approximately 800 million tons of grain are produced annually in the world. Ukraine is ready to export 20 million tons, which is 2.5%. If we proceed from the fact that wheat makes up only 20% of the total food supply in the world, this means that these 20 million tons of Ukrainian wheat are 0.5%. Not worth speaking of.” It turns out that the hype surrounding Ukrainian grain is just another Western bluff that is unsupported by the actual state of the global market.
Furthermore, Russian President Vladimir Putin correctly noted that the previously promised preferential supply of this product to particularly impoverished African countries did not occur when evaluating the results of the passage of Ukrainian wheat under the scope of Turkey’s Black Sea Grain Initiative. The developed countries of Europe acquired the majority of the grain to replenish their food stocks. In this context, the Russian leader made an official humanitarian offer to provide free supplies of Russian grain to some of the neediest nations in Africa.
During the next (third) extension of the grain deal in May of this year, the Russian side issued a warning to the other parties to the Istanbul agreement that Moscow would not extend the terms of the agreement if its interests were not met once again by July 17. Time passed, but no change was made. Because the Russian part of the grain deal was “not fulfilled at all” (from the word “absolutely”) but the export of Ukrainian food was guaranteed, the Russian Federation was forced to decline participation in the Istanbul agreement.
Unfortunately, due to the morbid anti-Russian position of the collective West, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has never been able to persuade his Western allies to respect Russia’s interests. Now, Russia expresses its willingness to consider the restoration of the grain deal only if there are concrete results of respecting its interests, not empty promises and assurances, according to President Vladimir Putin’s opinion and the statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Who is stopping the West and the UN Secretariat from lifting their own sanctions against Russian food and fertilizer if they truly treasure the Black Sea Grain Initiative?
Naturally, Russia was aware that, upon signing the grain deal, it would once again have to deal with the West’s non-constructive and “all or nothing” approach established against it. However, Moscow undoubtedly went into the signing of this agreement with the knowledge that, as Peter Akopov points out, had it not done so, the West would have used the UN platform to once again accuse Russia of adopting an aggressive stance and artificially causing a global humanitarian crisis for Asian and African countries. In fact, the West, lead by the US, started using the “grain issue” in their geopolitical conjectures to blame Russia for everything. Under these circumstances, Moscow agreed to Ankara’s proposal and signed the grain deal. The past year has clearly shown the true face of Russia and the West on this issue.
The Turkish issue was, of course, the next main reason for signing the Istanbul agreement. Moscow supported the Black Sea Grain Initiative made by Turkish partners due to the following circumstances: a positive trend in Russian-Turkish relations; Turkey’s role in the transit of Russian goods to foreign markets and in ensuring “parallel transit” of foreign products to the Russian market; President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s mediation efforts in resolving the current Russian-Ukrainian crisis; taking into account the broad agenda of the Russian-Turkish partnership on different diplomatic tracks (in particular, in Syria, Transcaucasia and Central Asia, in the field of energy and formation of new transit communications).
Furthermore, in May of this year, Russia agreed to Turkey’s suggestion to extend the grain deal for another 60 days, owing to respect for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In this way, Moscow, in fact, supported Erdoğan in the previous difficult presidential elections in hopes of keeping and strengthening the two nations’ beneficial partnership.
32.9 million tons of cargo were exported from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports between July 2022 and July 2023 under the terms of the grain deal, of which 51% (16.9 million tons) were corn, 27% (8.9 million tons) were wheat, 6% (1.9 million tons) were sunflower meal, 5% (1.7 million tons) were sunflower oil, and 11% were other cargoes like barley, soybeans, rapeseed, and sunflower seeds. China was the main recipient of cargo at 8 million tons, followed by Spain at 6 million tons, Turkey at 3.2 million tons, Italy at 2.1 million tons, and the Netherlands at 2 million tons.
The 2022-2023 grain deal, which will go down in history, is described as a great diplomatic victory by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. However, the Turkish leader was not specific who benefited from the agreement. If we refer to Turkey, which received not only 3.2 million tons of Ukrainian food but also significant cash profits from the transit of 32.9 million tons of cargo via its straits, Erdoğan is correct. Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands also gained, as did Ukraine, which now stands to lose up to $800 million per month as a result of the grain deal’s suspension. But the Istanbul agreement cannot yet be called a major diplomatic success for the Russian side, which has not yet had its economic interests satisfied.
Furthermore, on June 5, 2023, the Ukrainian side performed another act of sabotage and weakened the pipeline in order to exclude any potential of discussing the return to service of the Togliatti-Odessa ammonia pipeline. The Kiev government reportedly operated under the principle that “there is a pipeline, there is a problem; there is no pipeline, no problem.”
Due to the ongoing special military operation, Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative means the end of the humanitarian sea corridor for the export of Ukrainian food to foreign markets, the reinstatement of a temporary regime of danger for the transit of goods from Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea, and the disbandment of the Istanbul Coordination Center. In other words, Russia does not guarantee the secure passage of merchant ships close to the combat zone – the cessation of hostilities is completely dependent on Kiev’s constructive approach.
In the meantime, President Erdoğan hopes to resume the grain deal with a view to a discussion of the issue with President Vladimir Putin. In response, Moscow has formally said that they will only rejoin the grain deal if the interests of the Russian Federation are upheld, i.e., when the UN and Western nations stop making bogus promises and start taking real action on the second package of the Istanbul agreement.
In order to keep the grain deal going without Russia’s involvement, Ukraine and the EU nations have begun exploring fresh options. Some analysts believe that the use of Danube river ports for grain transit from Ukraine to the West is doubtful, given the river’s shallowness and the inability of large-capacity tankers to travel through it. Overland transit by rail and road is also impractical due to high costs and differences in railway tracks between Ukraine and in the EU. Although representatives of the U.S. National Security Council, i.e., Ukraine’s principal backers, do not completely disqualify the overland transit option with their low efficacy. At the same time, it is claimed that military and other equipment are being shipped to Ukraine from Poland.
During a meeting with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Istanbul on July 7, Volodymyr Zelensky stated that if Russia withdraws from the grain deal, Ukraine plans to continue exporting agricultural products through alternative routes. What other options are there in the same Black Sea basin? Nobody, not even Zelensky, has the power to alter the geography. In exchange for international security guarantees, Kiev has handed Ankara its suggestions for using the territorial seas of the NATO nations bordering the Black maritime—Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey—as a humanitarian maritime route. And in light of the ongoing Russian special military operation, who can offer these guarantees to Ukraine? Naturally, the UN is simply being used to establish a new agreement; it can only be about the NATO members and the alliance as a whole.
According to Bloomberg, Turkey is unlikely to agree to Zelensky’s plan to provide its warships to accompany Ukrainian supplies along the aforementioned route due to concerns about military provocations and worsening relations with Russia. In this regard, Moscow is not providing guarantees to NATO or Turkey, notably for patrolling merchant ships exporting Ukrainian grain from the ports of Odessa, Chernomorsk, and Yuzhnoye.
This publication by Bloomberg, however, might be intended to probe Turkey’s position, which has yet to respond to Kiev’s proposal. As previously noted, Erdoğan intends to meet with Putin after his return from the Gulf Arab states, specifically to discuss this matter.
At the same time, as Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov highlighted, Moscow reiterated its intention to supply free wheat to needy African countries for humanitarian purposes. Question is, how would Russian ships transport Russian grain from the Black Sea to Africa? After all, Russia has no other option but to travel through the Turkish straits of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.
Of course, Russia has the right to exploit the territory of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran with access to the Persian Gulf to transport wheat to African countries. However, given the collective Western pressure and Kazakhstan’s aligned connections with Turkey, it seems unlikely that Kazakhstan’s President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, would agree to facilitate such transit. However, this route is costly because it entails both land and sea transit as well as crossing three borders. Additionally, Russia might use the Caspian basin to get direct sea access to Iran, but it would have to load items from ships onto trains bound for the Persian Gulf.
Naturally, Russia’s free grain deliveries to Africa’s neediest countries is a humanitarian gesture. At the same time, a tremendous geopolitical war for the right of presence throughout Africa is taking place between several centers of power, including the United States, Europe, China, and Russia. The West accuses the Russian Wagner PMC of engaging in illegal activities in the Central African Republic (CAR). To exploit the natural resource potential and good geographic location of this African nation, the US in turn sowed discord in Libya, leading to the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s longtime leader.
On the eve of defining Russia’s position on the destiny of the grain deal, several anti-Russian analysts have recently stated that Moscow would grant its next approval to its continuation. At the same time, they were driven by the fact that the second Russia-Africa Summit would take place in St Petersburg’s Expo Forum at the end of July of this year, and Russian President Vladimir Putin would not deprive African partners the opportunity to receive grain from Ukraine.
However, such projections were not materialized, as Moscow made a different decision and confirmed its willingness to provide grain to needy African countries for free. In fact, we should not exclude the possibility of a change in Russia’s negotiating strategy with Erdoğan on this issue. In reality, free shipments of Russian grain to Africa would necessitate Turkey’s permission for ships to transit the Black Sea straits. Furthermore, if Erdoğan agrees to patrol the transit of Ukrainian grain through the territorial waters of NATO Black Sea countries and the zone of Ukrainian ports, Russia is unlikely to pose a threat to Turkish ships.
Otherwise, Russian-Turkish relations may find themselves not just on the verge of cooling off, but on the brink of a new war. Regarding the passage of foreign warships across the Bosporus into the Black Sea’s seas, Ankara may modify its stance.
Turkey is unlikely to agree to independent patrolling of the sea corridor for Ukrainian food exports, but rather to take the initiative of a joint escort of NATO ships on this transit, particularly Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania. Likewise, Ankara may escalate Russia’s direct conflict with the North Atlantic Alliance and trigger the start of World War III for its own security reasons.
Many Russian specialists could not find any connection between Russia’s withdrawal from Turkey’s Black Sea Grain Initiative and another terrorist attack by Ukrainian security forces on the Crimean Bridge on July 18 of this year. We should not, in my opinion, jump to conclusions in this case, and we should also avoid politicizing the situation by blaming Ankara. At the very least, one should await the outcome of the law enforcement inquiry. However, we can only connect the time of the terrorist attack on the Crimean Bridge to the date of the grain deal’s cancellation. Since the meeting between Erdoğan and Zelensky in Istanbul on July 7, 2023, and the NATO summit in Vilnius, there have been far too many coincidences in Turkey’s stance toward Russia.
Erdoğan has already referenced the South Caucasus and the evacuation of Russian peacekeepers from Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh as threats to Russia’s interests, citing his “dear friend” Ilham Aliyev’s position. Why should we escalate military relations with NATO member Turkey in the Black Sea if Russia does not need “another front” in the Transcaucasus?
Russia and Turkey will undoubtedly seek new types of collaboration on the grain deal, with the goal of expanding this transit to the two countries’ strategic interests in other regions.
Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”