Ukraine and the West call Moscow's bluff on grain deal suspension, but will Russia retaliate?

Ukraine and the West call Moscow's bluff on grain deal suspension, but will Russia retaliate?
Ukrainian grain is still leaving the country by sea, despite Russia's threat to pull out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. / bne IntelliNews
By Dominic Culverwell in Berlin November 2, 2022

Ukraine is continuing to ship grain from its ports despite Moscow threatening to pull out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative after Russian warships were targeted in an attack last week.

Russia suspended the Istanbul grain deal signed in July that allowed Ukraine to export its grain around the world on October 30, claiming Ukraine had carried out a “massive” terrorist drone attack on Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol on October 29 with aerial and naval drones and was “threatening the security of the grain corridor.”

Nevertheless, 12 ships exported 354,500 tonnes of agricultural products to Africa, Asia and Europe from the port of Odesa on October 31, according to the Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov. Moscow’s announcement sparked fears of a renewed global food crisis, and Chicago wheat futures prices jumped by nearly 6% and corn futures by nearly 3%, Ukraine Business News reported.

Ukraine’s decision to carry on exporting grain, with the backing of the United Nations and Turkey, has led to a tense standoff with Russia, which accused Kyiv of “abusing” the humanitarian sea corridor to attack its fleet. However, Moscow has since altered its tone and said it is not pulling out of the agreement, but rather suspending it, and insists that guarantees be put in place.

“Ukraine must guarantee that there are no threats for civilian ships and Russian vessels,” Putin said at a press briefing in Sochi, Bloomberg reported. “They created a threat both to our ships, which are supposed to ensure the safety of grain exports, and to civilian ships that are engaged in this.”

The Black Sea Initiative guarantees the safety of ships exporting millions of tonnes of Ukrainian grain organised by a control centre in Istanbul consisting of UN, Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian officials. However, it does not prohibit Ukraine from targeting Russian military vessels in the sea as long as grain-related ships or infrastructure were not involved.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced that he had spoken with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and confirmed that Ukraine is committed to the Grain Deal. “We’re ready to remain a guarantor of (global) food safety,” he tweeted.

Whether or not Moscow will retaliate by targeting ships carrying Ukrainian grain is still to be seen. Economist Evghenia Sleptsova believes that Kyiv is calling Moscow’s bluff and doesn’t think Russia is likely to strike a commercial ship. 

“Has Russia cornered itself? It can't easily pull off attacking a commercial vessel when Africa and Asia are closely watching,” she tweeted.

Instead, Russian forces fired over 50 missiles at Ukraine on October 31, damaging infrastructure across the country. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that this was partly in response to the Sevastopol attack and warned “that's not all we could do” at the Sochi press conference, Ukrainian Pravda reported.

"I call on all states to demand that Russia stop its hunger games and recommit to fulfilling its obligations," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter, adding that the Black Sea explosions were "220 km away from the grain corridor."

The breakthrough deal was brokered by Turkey and the UN and allowed vital grain deliveries to take place and so head off a potential global food crisis. Some 9mn tonnes of grain left the country from the 50mn tonnes Ukraine typically exports each year, which earns the country a badly needed circa $20bn annually.

The deal was due to expire after 120 days in the middle of November and the Kremlin has been signalling for weeks that it would not renew the agreement, claiming that the EU is hogging the majority of grain exports instead of distributing them to the poorest countries. The Sevastopol strike gave Moscow the excuse to potentially end the agreement early.

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