Due to the West’s disregard for Russian interests, Moscow withdrew from the Istanbul agreements; however, the issue of the grain deal is still up for discussion with Turkey and its NATO allies. Prior to President Erdoğan’s travels to the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, he voiced hope for Russia’s return to the Black Sea Grain Initiative and indicated an impending meeting or telephone call with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on the matter in general.
In any case, Turkey has made it clear that it is aware of Russia’s position and is unhappy with the way the Western allies are handling the UN agreements that were reached with the Russian Federation to protect Moscow’s counter-interests in the agricultural sector. This understanding won’t do much to please the Russian side until real steps are taken to address the situation within the framework of the Istanbul agreements of 2022.
The United States, represented by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and, oddly enough, NATO, represented by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, expressed hope that Mr. Erdoğan would be able to persuade Moscow to agree to extend the grain deal and bring Russia back to the Istanbul project due to his personal friendship with Mr. Putin. The view that Ukrainian grain would resume flowing to international markets with Turkey’s mediation was also expressed by the UK Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly. Unfortunately, none of the above-mentioned or other Western leaders acknowledge the importance of respecting Russian interests in this regard.
The Ukrainian side raised this issue during Erdoğan and Zelensky’s July 7 meeting in Istanbul and said that if Russia withdrew from the grain deal, Kiev would need alternative channels for the transit of its agricultural goods. This means that both Kiev and Ankara were aware of the possibility of such a situation because of their persistent disrespect for Moscow’s interests.
Following Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative and the Russian Defense Ministry’s statement on the termination of security guarantees in the Special Military Operations Zone and the consideration of all ships entering Ukrainian ports (Odessa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhnoye) as objects possibly carrying military cargo to Ukraine, Kiev began to declare the territorial waters of the Black Sea NATO countries – Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey – as an alternative route for the transit of its grain. At the same time, the Ukrainian side appealed to NATO and Turkey in particular to support the proposed route and ensure security by patrolling merchant ships.
Ankara understands quite well that in such a circumstance, no one can ensure Turks’ security in the Black Sea basin, and defying Russian interests might lead not only to the breakdown of Russian-Turkish partnership relations but also to more serious negative consequences.
The talks on the grain deal between Russian and Turkish Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Hakan Fidan have so far resulted in an update on Russia’s grounds for withdrawal and its commitment to return to the Istanbul project if the previously specified interests are met. At the same time, Moscow and Ankara discussed bilateral opportunities for exporting Russian agricultural products independent of Ukraine and Western countries.
President Erdoğan recently handed along his suggestions for resolving the situation with Russia and extending the grain deal to the Ukrainian side. However, the precise nature of these recommendations is not known in the public domain, which leaves room for some sort of leak through the intelligence channels. After all, it is no coincidence that Erdoğan claimed, in reference to the grain deal, that negotiations with the Russians are taking place not just through the Foreign Ministry but also at the level of intelligence agency chiefs.
Turkey, which has received over 3.2 million tons of Ukrainian grain and made substantial financial returns from the transit of these items across its straits, is naturally interested in extending the agreement. The obvious economic costs of stopping the transit of Ukrainian grain for Turkey, which is experiencing an acute financial crisis, may be the suspension of the active work of flour mills and related production facilities for packaging and distribution of products.
Will Turkey, as a NATO member, once again (like in the case of Sweden) resist the alliance’s united decision to explore alternate transit routes for Ukrainian grain under the pretense of humanitarian products and using NATO countries’ and forces capabilities?
Meanwhile, Russian expert Liya Farrakhova believes that Russian grain may become an alternative to Ukrainian grain for Turkey. For instance, Russia has had a record harvest in recent years, which needs to be exported because it exceeds domestic demand. Farrakhova, quoting the Chairman of the Turkish Flour Industrialists’ Federation, Eren Günhan Ulusoy, argues that Russia lacks sufficient facilities for grain storage and export, causing major challenges for domestic agrarians. At the same time, Turkey has enormous prospects and a sufficient amount of grain storage facilities to receive the Russian harvest, process it at its flour mills, package the final products, and distribute them from Turkey to global markets.
According to Liya Farrakhova, Russia should support the views of its Turkish allies on the establishment of another “grain hub” on Turkish soil, taking into account Ankara’s production and transit-export capacities. However, a reasonable objection is made that, in this situation, one of Russia’s most important branches of agricultural output will ultimately fall back into a form of reliance on NATO member Turkey.
Additionally, Erdoğan will undoubtedly behave in his distinctive way and look out for himself, just as he did with the gas issue. In particular, this is not the first time that Turks have sought to use the so-called “commission” for intermediate services to obtain favorable prices for the importation of Russian wheat. Therefore, Mrs Farrakhova came to the conclusion that fresh concessions from Russia will be needed in order to create a “grain hub” in Turkey.
What can you say? Despite being granted a “grain hub,” Russia has not yet had time to put its own plan for a “gas hub” in Turkey into action. As a result of Russia’s growing reliance on Turkish trading platforms, it turns out to be a gallop across Turkey from “hub” to “hub,” but in the net result, there is a “commission” for Turkey and another loss for the country. By the way, the same situation has been developing for two decades with the mass tourism of Russians to the shores of Turkish resorts in the Mediterranean, although it is high time to develop their own tourist complex on the Russian coast. This doesn’t seem like a partnership.
Finally, will NATO refuse to export Ukrainian grain utilizing the capabilities of Turkey to which the British relinquished control of the Black Sea straits under the terms of the Montreux Convention in 1936?
In one of my articles on the grain deal following Russia’s withdrawal from the Istanbul agreements in July of this year, I stated that Turkey would prefer not to independently patrol merchant ships carrying Ukrainian grain through the territorial waters of Romania and Bulgaria in order to avoid being attacked by the Russian side in the Special Military Operation zone. However, in this case, Turkey may not be able to defy NATO’s onslaught led by the US and agree to the escort (patrol) of merchant ships from Ukrainian ports by a joint squadron of warships from Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania under the NATO flag.
Meanwhile, Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander a retired four-star U.S. naval officer, Admiral James Stavridis, in his article posted on July 25 this year in the Bloomberg agency, suggested using NATO convoys to export Ukrainian grain through the international and territorial Romanian, Bulgarian, and Turkish waters of the Black Sea basin. The American Admiral recalls the U.S. Navy’s naval operation in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz in 1987–1988 to export oil and avoid Iran’s position during the closing stages of the Iran–Iraq conflict, which was successful. The merchant ships were then escorted by US warships after Washington “changed the flag” of the Kuwaiti oil tankers to American.
Stavridis views grain, rather than oil, to constitute humanitarian cargo in the Ukrainian situation, therefore escorting a convoy of merchant ships is broadly protected by international law, and military escorts for humanitarian shipments in conflict zones are permissible. However, the UN in this situation will not be able to assume such a role of escort, although the UN, due to the actions of the United States, can guarantee practically nothing and no one in accordance with the formal norms of international law because Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, can veto it.
Accordingly, Admiral Stavridis proposes that NATO or the United States, at the head of a “coalition of the willing,” undertake a similar mission of exporting Ukrainian grain, bypassing Russia. In the case of the NATO mission, there will be two maritime combat groups, the first consisting of minesweepers and the second of frigates and destroyers with high-powered fire and air defense with air cover, under the overall leadership of the commander of United States European Command, Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli. A pair of guided-missile cruisers and a squadron of fighter jets will be stationed at NATO air bases in Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania to accompany convoys of three to five merchant ships on this mission.
In other words, the Americans do not rule out escorting convoys of dry cargo ships carrying grain from the Ukrainian ports of Odessa, Chernomorsk, and Yuzhnoye through the waters of Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey to foreign markets, whether individually within NATO or solely by forming a coalition of naval and air combat ships. The United States would interpret a Russian attack on NATO ships as a direct conflict with Ukraine’s Western partners.
As we can see, the grain deal’s stakes are rising while Turkey’s importance isn’t decreasing. It’s unclear whether Erdoğan will be able to reject such US and NATO offers. Additionally, it is crucial for Moscow that Russian warships and cargo ships may transit via the Black Sea straits. Changing the current laws could lead to the globalization of the battle, putting the globe on the brink of World War III.
Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”