Like the war that necessitated it, Russia’s decision not to renew the UN-Turkish brokered grain deal is bad for the world but not entirely unprovoked.
The deal allowed Ukraine safe passage for its grain laden ships through the mined and blockaded Black Sea ports so it could export its grain to the world.
On July 17, Russia announced the decision not to renew the deal.
It has often been reported that Russia’s decision is retaliation for Ukraine’s recent sabotage of the Kerch Strait bridge that links Crimea to the Russian mainland. But Putin had announced the distinct possibility of suspending the agreement prior to the attack on the bridge.
In a July 13 question period, in a response to a question from a journalist, Russian President Vladimir Putin had already said, prior to the attack on the bridge, that "We can suspend our participation in this deal."
Putin gave two reasons for suspending the deal after having "extended this so-called deal many times." The first is that, though it was Russia that suspended the deal, it was the West that broke it. "As for the conditions under which we agreed to ensure the safe export of Ukrainian grain, yes, there were clauses in this agreement with the United Nations, according to which Russian interests had to be taken into account as well," Putin said. "Not a single clause related to what is in the interests of the Russian Federation has been fulfilled."
Announcing the decision not to renew the deal four days later, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated that charge: "Unfortunately, the part of the Black Sea agreement that concerns Russia has not yet been fulfilled. As a result, it has been terminated." However, he added that "As soon as the Russian part [of the deal] is fulfilled, the Russian side will immediately return to the implementation of this deal." Putin made a similar pledge in his answer to the journalist. One option, he said, is "not first the extension and then the honoring of promises, but first the honoring of promises and then our participation. What do I mean? We can suspend our participation in this deal, and if everybody once again says that all the promises made to us will be fulfilled, let them fulfill them – and we will immediately join this deal. Again."
George Bebe of the Quincy Institute has said that "Russia’s withdrawal from the deal is part of classic negotiating behavior, after its repeated demands went unaddressed by partners to the deal."
While Russia kept its promise to allow Ukraine to export its grain, Moscow argues that the West failed to implement their commitments on facilitating Russian exports of grains and fertilizer due to an impossible to navigate web of sanctions and the failure to reconnect the Russian Agricultural Bank to the SWIFT financial system to enable payments.
Though better known as the grain deal, the deal was meant to facilitate the export of fertilizer as well. As early as the end of April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had complained that Russian cargo vessels carrying fertilizer were paralyzed in European ports. Russia has been unable to export its fertilizer. The world also watched silently with no condemnation when Russia’s Togliatti-Odessa pipeline that carries ammonia necessary for fertilizer was sabotaged.
The second reason is not about the failure to meet the conditions of the deal, but about the failure to meet the purpose of the deal. Putin has frequently pointed out that "this whole deal was presented under the pretext of ensuring the interests of African countries" whose food security was threatened. Instead, from Russia’s perspective, the deal has boosted the economy of Russia’s enemy by allowing Ukraine to export grain and boosted the economy of those supporting Russia’s enemy by allowing western Europe to import that grain while helping African countries barely at all.
Putin has repeatedly claimed that Ukrainian grain exported under the deal is not reaching Africa but is headed, instead, for Europe. He has claimed at various times that “about 45 percent of the total volume of grain exported from Ukraine went to European countries, and only three percent went to Africa." In his response to the journalist, Putin again said that "only a little more than 3 percent went to the poorest countries – a bit over 3 percent. Everything else went to a well-fed and prosperous Europe."
And he’s not wrong. Though Africa has benefited from the deal indirectly by stabilizing global supply and prices, they have not been the ones to benefit directly. While only 12% of the grain has reached Africa, 40% went to Western Europe, according to the World Food Program. The biggest recipients of Ukraine’s grains have been China, Spain, Turkey, Italy and The Netherlands. 80% of the grain has gone to upper-middle and high income countries, with 44% going to high income countries, while only 2.5% has made its way to low-income countries, according to the most recent UN data.
Russia, though, has sent many tonnes of grain to Africa: 11.5 million tonnes in 2022 and 10 million in the first half of 2023, according to Putin. And, in November 2022, Russia agreed to send grain to some African countries for free. Putin has repeatedly promised that, were the deal not to be extended, “Russia will be ready to supply the same amount that was delivered under the deal, from Russia to the African countries in great need, at no expense.” After the decision not to extend the deal, Putin wrote an article in the African media repeating that promise directly to the people of Africa: "I want to give assurances that our country is capable of replacing the Ukrainian grain both on a commercial and free-of-charge basis. . . . Notwithstanding the sanctions, Russia will continue its energetic efforts to provide supplies of grain, food products, fertilizers and other goods to Africa." Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said that, despite Western obstacles in the form of logistics, ship insurance and payments, “We will help those in need, we will find a way to do it, both with grain and fertilizers." The Kremlin says that the offer of free grain is on the agenda of the second Russia-Africa summit being held in St. Petersburg this week.
Though Russia’s decision not to extend the grain deal is harmful to the world, like the war itself, it is often presented as emerging without antecedents. The narrative has frequently been distorted by discussing the decision not to extend the deal in isolation from its important context. The decision was not spontaneous retribution for the attack on the Kerch Strait bridge, it was a long thought out negotiation strategy in response to promises made to Russia not being fulfilled. The announcement of the decision was also accompanied by the assurance that Russia would immediately return to the deal when those promises were fulfilled. The decision was also the product of Russia’s frustration that the deal was not only failing to benefit Russia as promised, but that it was failing to benefit Africa as promised while supporting the economies of Ukraine and the wealthy Western European countries who are helping it in its fight against Russia.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.