On July 22, the Initiative on Safe Transportation of Grain and Foodstuffs From Ukrainian Ports (“Grain Agreement”) was signed in Istanbul, Turkey. The document unblocked three of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports for grain transportation. The first grain vessel left the port of Odesa on August 1 (Minfin.com.ua, August 1). Overall, 50 days after the agreement was signed, 113 vessels have transported about 2.37 million tons of Ukrainian agricultural products to the ports of Egypt, Yemen, Israel, Iran, India, China, South Korea, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, Turkey and European Union member states (Ports.ua, September 8). Four to five vessels with a total tonnage of up to 90,000 tons of Ukrainian agricultural products leave Ukraine’s ports every day (Pravda.com.ua, September 8, Mtu.gov.ua, September 10). The largest caravan of six vessels loaded with 147,200 tons of Ukrainian grain left the port of Odesa on August 28 (UNIAN, August 28).
Along with efforts to implement the Grain Agreement, Ukraine continues to consistently improve export logistics along the Danube—passage through the Bystre Canal was up to four vessels per day in July 2022, then seven vessels by the end of August. It should be recalled that the Bystre-Danube-Black Sea waterway became available for the passage of grain vessels in early July. This happened in large part thanks to the liberation of Snake Island by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Access to the Ukrainian Danube ports prior to this was possible only through the Sulina Canal, which passes through Romanian territory (Ukrinform, August 28).
Generally, Kyiv has demonstrated a significant increase in port transhipment of agricultural products. If Ukrainian ports processed only 16,500 tons of agricultural products for export in March 2022, then Ukraine plans to export at least three million tons of grain and food through unblocked seaports and a total of eight million tons by all modes of transport in September (24tv.ua, September 7).
In fact, the Grain Agreement, concluded with the mediation of the United Nations (UN), has been working with solid results. Yet, the Kremlin has begun to question this, showing its intentions to slow down and limit the agreement. Thus, Vasyl Nebenzia, the Russian permanent representative to the UN, has emphasized that Russia was unable to export a single vessel with food as part of the Grain Agreement. As such, Moscow may refuse to extend the deal in November 2022. (The agreement expires in November, 120 days after signing, but it can be renewed.). Such an argument looks extremely dubious because the Grain Agreement concerns the transportation of grain and food products from Ukrainian seaports, which were blocked at the beginning of the Kremlin’s all-out aggression in February.
At the same time, no one blocked Russian seaports or interfered with the logistics of Moscow’s grain exports. In addition, Western sanctions do not apply to Russian food (Obozrevatel.com, September 7). On September 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated in his speech at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok that only two out of 80 ships with food from Ukraine went to the poorest countries—the rest were sent to Europe. Putin concluded, “The scale of the world’s food problems will only increase with such an approach” (Glavcom.ua, September 7).
Ukraine transfers 37 percent of its grain exports to the EU. Primary destinations include Spain and Portugal, which are traditional markets for Kyiv’s grain. However, 37 percent is nowhere close to 78 out of 80 ships (Minfin.com.ua, September 7). In reality, almost two-thirds of Ukrainian grain, which Kyiv has already sent through the “grain corridor,” has been directed to Asia, Africa and the Middle East (Mfa.gov.ua, September 7). Sixteen vessels with almost 500,000 tons of critical food aid were sent to Africa, which, according to the UN, is on the verge of a humanitarian disaster. In particular, two vessels with more than 60,000 tons of grain were chartered by the UN World Food Programme for countries suffering from the food crisis. In addition, thanks to UN partners, another 190,000 tons of Ukrainian grain have already been purchased for further export to Africa (Mtu.gov.ua, September 9).
It is worth noting that the Grain Agreement signed by Ukraine, the UN and Turkey does not provide for any restrictions on export destinations. “Russia cannot dictate where Ukraine should send its grain, and Ukraine does not dictate the same to Russia,” stressed Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine (Ua.krymr.com, September 7).
In fact, the Kremlin’s grain blackmail has been the main factor in causing prices for wheat futures to rise by nearly 7 percent (Ukrainian.voanews.com, September 8). Undoubtedly, rising grain prices are exacerbating the already acute food crisis in poor countries. Indeed, Moscow may initiate a revision of the Grain Agreement as November 2022 approaches.
The first question that arises in connection with this issue is whether Russia, as the initiator of the revision, is ready to pay for Ukrainian grain to increase the volume of its transfer to the poorest countries? The answer, of course, is no. This is obvious, just as the lack of sound arguments from the Kremlin on the need to change the agreement. If Moscow withdraws from the agreement and resorts to forceful sea control and denial methods, Russia will be unable to block all the littoral waters of Ukraine. Such an exhaustive blockade is not possible without warships’ forward deployment, but after the sinking of the missile cruiser Moskva, the remaining ships of the Kremlin’s Black Sea Fleet are hidden close to the Crimea coast—out of the range of Ukraine’s anti-ship missiles.
On September 12, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) accused the West of disrupting the memorandum between the Russian Federation and UN on the export of agricultural products, signed in Istanbul at the same time as the Grain Agreement (Tass.ru, September 12). This memorandum is not publicly available; it exists only in the Russian media where claims have been made that the document allegedly enshrines UN obligations to eliminate “obstacles created by the US and the EU in the spheres of finance, insurance and logistics” and to ensure the unhindered export of Russian agricultural products to world markets (Interfax.ru, July 22). It is unclear how the UN could guarantee matters far beyond its jurisdiction. And it is doubtful that the Russian MFA is unaware of the true extent of UN authority (Zn.ua, September 12).
Evidently, the Kremlin has never been characterized by humanitarianism. Moscow agreed to unblock Ukrainian ports not because it wanted to help starving African children, but because it wanted to advance its own economic interests in the Kremlin’s style of manipulation, ultimatums and blackmail. Ultimately, it is unlikely that the factors that forced Moscow to sign the grain deal have changed. However, a scenario in which the Kremlin might renege on the grain deal and escalate the war at sea should be not eliminated.