The Ukraine Grain Agreement After Three Months: Moscow’s Blackmail, Boa Constrictor Tactics and Russian Gas

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 164

A joint civilian inspection team comprising officials from the Russian Federation, Türkiye, Ukraine and the United Nations visited the merchant vessel Razoni on 3 August 2022 (Source: UNOCHA/Levent Kulu)

Three months ago, the Initiative on the Safe Transportation of Grain and Foodstuffs From Ukrainian Ports (“Grain Agreement”) was signed in Istanbul, Turkey (see EDM, September 13). The deal lifted the Russian naval blockade of three key Ukrainian seaports—Odesa, Chornomorsk and Pivdennyi—for the safe passage of critical grain and food exports to ensure global food security. Overall, the initiative has been relatively effective in combating the food crisis in many countries: in total, about 8 million tons of agricultural products on 362 grain vessels has already been exported to countries in Asia, Europe and Africa (, October 20).

The Grain Agreement is valid for 120 days with the possibility of an extension—that is, its term expires on November 22. Russia has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the grain deal, arguing that the grain is allegedly not going where it is needed and complaining about the increased difficulty in selling its fertilizer and food products abroad. Gennady Gatilov, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, said Moscow had delivered a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres setting out a list of complaints. “If we see nothing is happening on the Russian side of the deal—the export of Russian grains and fertilizers—then excuse us, we will have to look at it in a different way,” the Russian official argued. In response to media requests, he has declined to make a copy of the letter available (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 13).

During the 6th Summit of the Conference on Cooperation and Confidence Building Measures in Asia on October 13, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he extend the Grain Agreement to keep the Black Sea ports open for the export of Ukrainian grain. In response, Putin voiced well-known claims that allegedly not enough grain reaches the poorest countries and that the export of Russian grain and fertilizers, although not directly subject to Western sanctions, has been held back by problems with access to foreign ports and difficulties in obtaining adequate insurance. At the same time, Putin stated that Turkey is the most reliable route for the delivery of gas to the European Union and proposed the creation of a “gas hub” there—something Ankara deeply desires (, October 13). This could mean the Kremlin will try to tie the two projects together in the traditional Russian approach to diplomatic bargaining. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has characterized such moves by Moscow as blackmail, which must be stopped immediately. According to Kuleba, Russia is resuming the “hunger games” and actively threatening the grain initiative. For its part, Ukraine did not present any additional conditions for the export corridors and continues to smoothly implement the agreement—even in the face of recent aggression from Russia (, October 13).

Furthermore, one critical issue directly connected with the grain deal deserves a bit more attention. An unprecedented concentration of anchored grain vessels has formed in the Sea of Marmara since the beginning of October 2022. A total of 106 grain vessels are: (a) at anchor and awaiting permission for inspection from the Joint Coordination Centre (JCC) in Istanbul (the JCC was established as part of the grain agreement, which includes representatives of the UN, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia); (b) undergoing inspection; or (c) waiting for permission to anchor in this area (BlackSeaNews, October 21). Wait times for inspection have reached as long as 15 days, which could extensively hamper the initiative’s implementation. The monitoring group of BlackSeaNews and the International Centre for Black Sea Strategic Studies believes that the reason for this backlog is that Russian representatives on the JCC are deliberately disrupting the inspection process. This specified Kremlin approach fits into Moscow’s “boa constrictor” tactics already demonstrated in the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov (see EDM, June 11, 2018). During the meeting of Ukrainian Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar in Istanbul on October 16, the parties to the Grain Agreement—Ukraine, Turkey and ​the UN—expressed their readiness to continue the deal’s implementation and assured that they would make maximum efforts for sustaining its safe and stable function. The Ukrainian side emphasized the urgent need for the JCC to speed up the inspection process to prevent the formation of massive queues and to significantly increase the volume of grain exports to Africa, Asia and Europe (, October 16).

Obsessed with finding reasons to aggravate the grain deal, on October 29, Moscow announced that, due to the devastating Ukrainian drone strike on its Black Sea Fleet, which is allegedly involved in guaranteeing the security of the grain corridor, the Russian side is suspending its participation in the implementation of the agreements, effective immediately (TASS, October 29). It remains unclear how the Russian Black Sea Fleet has been “guaranteeing the security of the grain corridor,” as such an objective is not delineated as part of Moscow`s mission in the trilateral agreement signed by Ukraine. In response to the Kremlin’s statement, Ukraine, Turkey and the UN demonstrated a clear response and consolidated position: They decided to continue exporting Ukrainian grain on ships that had already passed inspections, about which the Russian side was informed (, November 1). Indeed, 12 grain ships with 354,500 tons of agricultural products left Ukraine on October 31 for countries in Africa, Asia and Europe (, November 1).

Realizing its impending loss of influence on the grain corridor and the potential destruction of relations with Turkey, Moscow returned to the Grain Agreement on November 2 (, November 2). The decision came after a phone call between Erdogan and Putin during which the Turkish president implored his Russian counterpart to re-join the deal (The Moscow Times, November 1).

Most likely, this swift maneuver was made because the Kremlin does not want to miss the chance to continue its manipulation and blackmail of the grain deal’s implementation. Russia’s continued commitment to hybrid methods is evident in its intentions to artificially reduce the flow of Ukrainian grain. Moscow’s attempts to connect the grain initiative with the “creation of a gas hub in Turkey” should not be forgotten, as, with this, the Kremlin will try to implement its well-known approach of weaponizing the energy question (, August, 22).