Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that a landmark deal that allowed Ukraine to export grain safely through the Black Sea amid the war won’t be restored until the West meets Moscow’s demands on its own agricultural exports.
Putin’s remarks dashed hopes that his talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could revive the agreement, seen as vital for global food supplies, especially in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Russia refused to extend the deal in July, complaining that a parallel agreement promising to remove obstacles to Russian exports of food and fertilizer hadn’t been honoured. It said restrictions on shipping and insurance hampered its agricultural trade, though it has shipped record amounts of wheat since last year.
Putin reiterated those complaints on Monday, while saying that if those commitments were honoured, Russia could return to the deal “within days”.
Erdogan also expressed hope that a breakthrough could come soon. He said Turkey and the UN — which both brokered the original deal — have put together a new package of proposals to unblock the issue.
“I believe that we will reach a solution that will meet the expectations in a short time,” Erdogan told a news conference in the Russian resort of Sochi, where the leaders met.
A lot is riding on the negotiation. Ukraine and Russia are major suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other goods that developing nations rely on.
Data from the Joint Coordination Centre in Istanbul, which organised shipments under the deal, show that 57% of the grain from Ukraine went to developing nations, with the top destination being China.
Grain prices shot up after Russia pulled out of the deal but have since fallen back, indicating that there isn’t a big crunch in the market right now, said Tim Benton, a food security expert at the Chatham House think tank. But the long-term picture is uncertain.
“I am more worried about the future, where the strengthening El Nino (weather phenomenon) might make 2024 the year to watch,” he said.
Ukraine and its allies have often noted that Russia’s move left many developing nations in the lurch, since so many were recipients of the grain.
Perhaps in an effort to address that accusation, Putin said on Monday that Russia was close to finalising an agreement to provide free grain to six African countries. Last month, he promised shipments to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Eritrea and Central African Republic.
The Russian leader added that the country will ship 1 million metric tonnes (1.1 million tons) of cheap grain to Turkey for processing and delivery to poor countries.
In addition to pulling out of the grain deal, Russia has repeatedly attacked the Odesa region, where Ukraine’s main Black Sea port is. Hours before the Sochi meeting, the Kremlin’s forces launched a second barrage in two days on the area. The Ukrainian air force said it intercepted 23 of 32 drones that targeted the Odesa and Dnipropetrovsk regions. It did not specify damage caused by those that got through.
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Russia is hoping it can use its power over Ukraine’s Black Sea exports as a bargaining chip to reduce Western economic sanctions.
Some companies have been wary of doing business with Russia because of those sanctions, even though Western allies have made assurances that food and fertilizer are exempt. Still, Moscow remains unsatisfied.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Monday urged Moscow to return to the deal, insisting “there were no legal and political grounds for Russia to withdraw from the agreement.”
Monday’s talks took place against a backdrop of Ukraine’s recent counteroffensive against the Kremlin’s invasion forces.
In the latest development, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday that Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov would be replaced this week. The job requires “new approaches,” Zelensky said, without elaborating. Reznikov on Monday published a photo of his resignation letter.