The Kremlin is ready to play the “hunger games” in order to weaken Ukraine and its wartime allies. Russia’s participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative was accompanied by blackmail and threats to withdraw from the “grain agreement”, permanent sabotage of work of the Joint Coordination Center and implementation of systematic escalation policy. All of the aforesaid by no means contributed to global food security and stability.

Russia ousted Ukraine from key markets and made the world ever more dependent on its grain exports by artificially reducing the capacity of “grain corridor”. Immediately after Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Initiative, the Russian army launched missile attacks on Ukraine’s grain infrastructure in order to knock the country out of the  Ukraine out of the global agricultural market to the extent possible.

Through the use of blackmail and rocket terror attacks the Russians are seeking to force the decision on partial removal of sanctions, which would allow them to flood the global market with their grain and fertilizers. Under the disguise of caring for the poor countries, the Kremlin is stealing Ukrainian grain from the occupied territories, keeps bragging about record-breaking harvests and dreams of becoming a key stakeholder in the field of global food security. However, Ukrainian grain still holds a large market share across the globe, so the world community is considering alternative grain export routes.

The Kremlin withdraws from the “grain agreement” and threatens the freedom of navigation in the Black Sea

Since the start of the “grain agreement” on July 22, 2022, Russia has been issuing threats to withdraw from it on a regular basis, unilaterally reduced the agreement renewal period from four to two months. On July 17, 2023, the Russian Federation refused to extend the agreement on export of Ukrainian food products within the framework of Black Sea Initiative.

The Kremlin justified its decision by the alleged fact of commercialization of the humanitarian goals of Ukrainian food export initiative to “serve the narrow self-regarding interests of Kyiv regime and its Western curators”, while the poor African and Asian countries received only 3% of Ukrainian exports within the framework of this agreement. Furthermore, representatives of the Kremlin regime complained that the Memorandum of understanding between the Russian Federation and the Secretariat of the United Nations on promoting Russian agricultural products and fertilizers was never implemented contrary to the agreement on Ukrainian food export.

As a result, Russia withdrew guarantees for the safety of navigation in the northwestern Black Sea and announced the re-imposition of temporary danger regime in this area. The Kremlin is banking on hunger blackmail to force the international community of states to lift sanctions.

At the meeting with members of government held on July 19, 2023, Vladimir Putin laid down his conditions  for the restoration of the Black Sea Initiative: removal of sanctions on the export of Russian grain and fertilizers to the world markets; removal of sanctions against the Russian banks that provide services in the export delivery of food products and fertilizers, which includes restoring their access to the SWIFT payment system; resumption of imports of spare parts necessary for agricultural machinery and fertilizer production to Russia; resolution of the problem with ship freight and insurance of Russian food exports, as well as ensuring the food supply logistics; resumption of deliveries via Togliatti–Odesa ammonia pipeline.

In view of the above, we can conclude that the sanctions do have a negative effect on the Russian economy. At the UN Security Council meeting held on July 21, 2023, the Deputy Ambassador of the Russian Federation Dmitry Polyanskiy admitted that Russia lost a number of countries-customers due to sanctions, the cost of agricultural machinery and spare parts imports increased by 40%, the cost of financial operations – by 10%, the profitability of export deliveries almost halved, the losses of Russian agricultural market operators reached $1.2 billion, while fertilizer companies lost $1.6 billion.

Polyanskiy noted that Russia is unable to import spare parts and agricultural equipment because they classify as “dual-purpose” goods, while the decision to declare the territory of Russia a high-risk military area raised the insurance tariffs to levels that are unaffordable. Polyanskiy also complained about foreign countries that closed their seaports to Russian vessels and cargo, while the foreign banks blocked the bank accounts of Russian agricultural companies.

At the same time, Russia continues receiving large profits from grain export. The US State Department stated that the UN, EU, UK and U.S. officials have made significant efforts to provide Russia with an opportunity to export its food products. In 2022, Russia reaped a record-breaking harvest, which increased by 29.9% (154 million tons) compared to 2021. This has become possible thanks in no small part to the crops harvested in the occupied territories of Ukraine. According to Ukrainian grain association estimates, Russia has stolen about 4 million tons of Ukrainian grain since the beginning of full-scale invasion.

According to the “Economic pravda”, in the past year and a half, Russia has been busy capturing the key markets to put Ukraine out of business, while Ukraine has been unable to regain all of its customers. Moreover, Russia is trying to promote a plan of Russian grain deliveries to Africa with the participation of Qatar and Turkey, but the two countries are not supportive of Russia’s plan for the time being. It will be recalled that Russia failed to fulfill its obligations under the “grain agreement”: 25 million tons of Ukrainian grain never made it to the world market due to Russian sabotage of work of the Joint Coordination Center.

And yet, Ukraine has become a reliable guarantor of food security, despite being constantly attacked by Russian missile and drones. Ukrainian grain exports helped decrease global food prices by more than 23% compared to March 2022. The Office of the President of Ukraine emphasized that 400 to 600 million people around the world directly depend on Ukraine’s food products. The blockade of Ukrainian seaports may lead to food shortages and spike in grain prices.

Ukraine is looking for new ways to export grain

Russia’s decision to withdraw from the Black Sea Initiative elicited an array of sharp responses from the world community. The decision was condemned by UN Secretary General António Guterres, president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, president of the European Council Charles Michel, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell and Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg.

Ukraine and the world leaders are currently looking for ways of averting the threat of global food security crisis. There are three possible options: find alternative export routes for Ukrainian grain, continue performance of the “grain agreement” without the involvement of Russian Federation, or impose international pressure on the Kremlin to force Russia to return to the Black Sea Initiative.

The main efforts to put pressure on Russia are focused on communication with the African countries most affected by the termination of the “grain agreement” and the president of Turkey Recep Erdogan, who is also the guarantor of the Black Sea Initiative and can directly influence the decisions of Russian dictator. In particular, Volodymyr Zelensky instructed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to intensify dialogue with partners with the aim of resuming the normal flow of Ukrainian grain exports.

The President of Ukraine also met with representatives of the African media and discussed the situation surrounding the export of Ukrainian grain. Afterwards, Zelensky talked on this subject with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed Ali. On July 17-18, 2023, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba visited the UN headquarters to hold urgent consultations regarding Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Initiative. In particular, he met with permanent representatives of several African countries. At the UN Security Council meeting, Kuleba called on the UN member states to put pressure on Russia to force this country to resume participation in the “grain agreement” and stop playing the “hunger games”.

Furthermore, Dmytro Kuleba paid a visit to Pakistan, where he garnered support for preserving the grain corridor. His activity drew negative reaction from Russian officials, who said that Ukraine “will fail in its attempt to drive a wedge between Moscow and Islamabad.” At the same time, the Foreign Minister of Turkey Hakan Fidan held consultations with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to find solutions for resumption of Ukrainian grain exports. The US and UK officials hope that Recep Erdogan, who hinted at the possibility of a positive outcome of negotiations with Putin that are scheduled for August 2023, will persuade Russia to return to the Black Sea Initiative.

However, so far the diplomatic efforts haven’t been able to achieve tangible results. Therefore, Ukraine is considering the possibility of resuming the implementation of “grain agreement” without the involvement of Russia. Volodymyr Zelensky sent official letters to the President of Turkey Erdogan and UN Secretary General Guterres with a proposal to continue the Black Sea Grain Initiative or its replacement in a tripartite format – without Russia.

The aggressor state did not like this idea. The Kremlin launched threats against those who decided to extend the agreement, while Russia’s Defense Ministry said it would deem all ships travelling to Ukrainian ports to be potential carriers of military cargo. Furthermore, Russia has warned everyone of its intention to inspect all vessels passing through the Black Sea. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine strongly condemned the threats voiced by Russia and reminded the aggressor state about its obligation to adhere to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, according to which the merchant ships of the states that are not involved in the armed conflict shall enjoy the right to free and peaceful navigation.

In response, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine threatened the Kremlin with mirror measures by saying that all the vessels in Black Sea heading towards the Russian ports or Ukrainian ports occupied by Russia may be considered as those carrying military cargo with all the risks that come with it.

However, whether the “grain agreement” can exist without Russia largely depends on the political will of partner countries. Strategic Communications Directorate of the Office of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine stated that Ukraine is ready to pave its way to economic success, having gained the insurers’ trust and the political consent of partner countries, including Turkey.

The Secretary of National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) of Ukraine Oleksiy Danilov pointed out that Ukraine is considering the possibility of addressing its partners with a request to form humanitarian convoys. Ukraine also gave consideration to other options, such as the use of new grain export route passing through the territorial waters of Romania and Bulgaria. However, the Ambassador of Ukraine to Turkey Vasyl Bodnar stated that none of Ukraine’s foreign partners is ready to take responsibility for ensuring physical protection of ships or engage in armed conflict with Russians, who laid additional mines on the approaches to Ukrainian seaports.

As if it wasn’t enough, the aggressor state began to destroy the grain infrastructure of southern Ukraine. Within the first four days after withdrawing from the Black Sea Initiative, Russian terrorists launched 90 Shahed drones and 70 rockets of all kinds, which were mainly aimed at Odesa region. In the port city of Chornomorsk, Russia destroyed 60,000 tons of grain meant for export to China, which is supposedly seen by Russia as a strategic partner. On the very next day, Russia damaged the building of the Chinese Consulate General in the center of Odesa.

The Kremlin said that the attack on Odesa is an act of revenge for the Crimean bridge that was damaged on July 17, but according to this logic, China was also involved in the attack on the bridge over the Strait of Kerch. During the past week, Russian terrorists destroyed 120 thousand tons of grain, as well as agro-industrial enterprises and various types of equipment.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, the Russian Federation is trying to create a sense of urgency of bringing Russia back to Black Sea Grain Initiative by attacking the Ukrainian seaports. At the same time, the NSDC of Ukraine believes that the aggressor state resorted to intimidation in order to negate the international initiatives for resuming the operation of “grain corridor” and make the world dependent on Russian grain.

Another way of ensuring safe export of Ukrainian grain is to find alternative export routes and ramp up the existing ones. At the meeting of Foreign Affairs Council that was held on July 20, 2023, Dmytro Kuleba called on the European Union to stretch the capacity of all available routes for the export of  Ukrainian grain, develop the Danube cluster, Adriatic and Baltic transport corridors.

In the end, the EU authorities agreed that it is necessary to transport larger amount of Ukrainian grain by road and rail. Germany has already decided to intensify the development of solidarity rail lines, while Croatia offered its railway network and ports in the Adriatic Sea for Ukrainian grain export.

However, according to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, it will be extremely difficult to make up for the lost export volumes by other means. Ukraine and its foreign partners continue working out diplomatic solutions, developing a package of measures and looking for alternative ways to deliver Ukrainian grain.

In conclusion, we would like to emphasize that the Russian Federation should not be allowed to use terror and blackmail threats as an effective tool of international policy. The world leaders should take decisive actions and put pressure on the Russian dictator to make him understand that the naval blockade of Ukraine is unacceptable, while the discredited international institutions need to do more than just express concern again and again. The out-of-hand Russian regime is only capable of launching blackmail threats and will “swallow” any decision, if the world community takes meaningful actions.  The democratic world will be able to stop the Russian dictator only if it maintains unity.

Dmytro Bashtovyi specially for