CEPA: Russia grip on Ukraine grain export harms developing world greatly

Harvesting grain (picture is illustrative).
Harvesting grain (picture is illustrative). Source: Mirjam Nutov/ERR

The stranglehold Russia will have on Ukraine's Black Sea ports after exiting a United Nations agreement on grain shipping set up last year will harm people worldwide – even to the extent of growing malnutrition and starvation – meaning there is no scope for neutrality on the matter, according to experts Borja Lasheras and Hanna Shelest.

Writing for think-tank the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)  website, Lasheras and Shelest argue this will be the case now Russia has not only declared that it is exiting the deal and, but also that every merchant ship heading to Ukrainian ports will be considered a potential carrier of military cargo, and consequently a legitimate target.

While 1.3 million cubic tonnes of grain was exported via Ukraine's ports in May this year, this was substantially down on figures expected in the past, even in the aftermath of the 2022 invasion, as were the two grain vessels per day recorded passing through the same ports in early June, compared with 10 per day last September.

Ultimately, Lasheras and Shelest say, this is part of a wider challenge to the international community, along with systematic war crimes and crimes against humanity, the militarization of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, freedom of movement, and food security.

That challenge should be met by a wider international coalition opposed to Russia than that already in place, a coalition which should include non-Western states, and states dependent on Ukrainian grain exports

That Russia agreed to the recently-exited grain deal in the first place was in part due to political pressure from its "frenemy" (ie. friend+enemy) Turkey, the authors say, will putative demands which if met could salvage the deal are self-serving and potentially deeply damaging to the democratic world's sanctions regime. Moreover, Russia is also a prime competitor of Ukraine in the grain market. As prices dropped due to the grain deal, Russia tried to capture

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan snubbed Russia's Vladimir Putin by releasing Ukrainian Azovstal commanders, which it had been holding, and this may have been a factor in the recent escalation.

Ukraine's traditional markets are in the Middle East, and while Its Black Sea port operations have increased by 21 percent on year to 2023, Russian ports grain exports doubled, in the first half of this year.

While Russia blockades much of the Black Sea, its embargoed oil is freely shipped to Greece, Spain, and the Netherlands, Shelest and Lasheras note.

Even as in some ways normal life still goes on, so far as it can, in Odesa, a major seaport hub and Ukraine's third-largest municipality, the actual port facility in that city of over a million people was a mere shadow of its former self, the piece notes – even before the full withdrawal, inspectors from the Russian slowly throttled grain shipments by approving the passage of fewer and fewer vessels, or by simply staging a slow-down, at a Joint Coordination Center, which lies on the Bosporus Strait.

With the invasion starting on February 24, 2022, the Russian Navy blockaded Ukraine's only ports, on the Black Sea. This left around 20 million tonnes of grain meant for export potentially to rot, threatening famine in the developing world and contributing to soaring world food prices. Brokered by Turkey, whose territory lies on either side of the Bosporus, the UN grain deal allowed safe passage for cargo vessels along a three nautical mile-wide corridor. On exiting the deal, Russia has now effectively said that any Ukrainian ship inside that zone could be a potential military target.

The full CEPA piece by Borja Lasheras and Hanna Shelest  is here.

Borja Lasheras is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security program at CEPA and a is a Special Adviser for Ukraine to the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Hanna Shelest is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security program at CEPA and is the Director of Security Programs at the Foreign Policy Council "Ukrainian Prism" and Editor-in-Chief at UA: Ukraine Analytica.

CEPA 's main aims are to ensure a strong and enduring transatlantic alliance rooted in democratic values and to build networks of future leaders versed in Atlanticism, among other goals, the organization says on its website.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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