Grain agreement: Russia slams the door

While Russia and Ukraine are the world’s leading grain exporters, the conflict in Donbass has precipitated the end of a grain agreement signed between the two countries, Turkey and the United Nations to maintain exports, exacerbating the food crisis already affecting millions worldwide. Once again, we discover how war destroys everything, beyond the borders of the belligerents. 

Illustration: Isabelle Biquet

On July 17, Russia announced the suspension of its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative. This had been put in place to avert the risk of a worsening food crisis, by bringing Russian and Ukrainian products back onto the world market. Before the conflict in Donbass, Russia and Ukraine were among the world’s leading grain exporters, supplying a third of the global wheat market. However, following the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, many countries decided to suspend trade with Russia, while Ukrainian grain exports had to cease due to the hostilities. This situation has intensified the food crisis affecting nearly 200 million people in 53 countries, according to the FAO.

To resolve this crisis, a diplomatic solution was found in the form of a grain agreement signed in Istanbul on July 22, 2022 by Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations. The agreement has two components: the creation of secure maritime corridors for grain exports from three Ukrainian ports, and support for the export of Russian agricultural products and fertilizers to world markets. However, the commitments made to Russia were never honored, leading to Moscow’s decision to temporarily withdraw from the cereals initiative.

In September 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized the EU for refusing to send Russian fertilizers to the poorest countries in Africa and Latin America, calling it « total fraud ».

In October 2022, the FSB concluded that the explosives used to blow up the Crimean bridge had been delivered by sea via the Black Sea corridor. On October 29, 2022, Russia announced its withdrawal from the grain agreement, but eventually rejoined after receiving guarantees that the humanitarian corridor would only be used for humanitarian purposes.

In an interview on July 13, 2023, Vladimir Putin expressed his dissatisfaction with the implementation of the Black Sea Grain Agreement, claiming that Russia had achieved nothing from the initiative. He even spoke of suspending the agreement if the terms were not respected. It was this assumption that materialized on the day the agreement expired. Despite this, Russia has left the door open to possible reintegration into the agreement if its demands are met. However, to force Russia to remain in the agreement, a drone attack was launched against the city of Sevastopol and the Crimean bridge, resulting in casualties.

The future of the cereals agreement is uncertain since Russia withdrew. Ukraine suggested that Turkey continue without Russia, but Turkey informed the Ukrainian government that it would not provide escorts or protection for commercial vessels attempting to export grain from Black Sea ports, due to the risks associated with an escalation of the conflict with Russia. The Turks remain focused on getting Russia back into the deal, with talks between Turkish President Erdogan and Russian President Putin due to take place next month, in August.

His interests first

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that his country would not reopen its market to Ukrainian grain after the end of the grain agreement. This position has been criticized for contradicting previous assurances of unconditional support for the Ukrainians. The explanation is purely domestic: Ukrainian grain previously imported into Poland had caused the local market to collapse and social tensions to escalate in the country. Local farmers were placed in unbearable conditions despite the subsidies promised by the authorities, which were not paid out or did not apply to the new harvest. The Polish authorities had therefore long since blocked the import of Ukrainian agricultural products, including cereals, sugar, fruit, vegetables, wine, meat, honey and dairy products. The restrictions are in place until September 15, but Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Slovakia have asked for them to be extended. Kiev is trying to respond by taking similar measures against Polish products.

Fraudulent imports of Ukrainian industrial cereals were revealed in Poland last May. The Polish Prosecutor’s Office has identified a number of companies selling these cereals, concealing their origin and destination. Grain was imported in large quantities without border controls, then sold as local grain for processing into flour or fodder. This practice has led to the contamination of Polish cereals with cereals that do not comply with EU production and transport standards.

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