Ukraine war: another round of pointless and dangerous escalation as Putin blocks grain exports

by Stefan Wolff

Following an attack on the Russian Black Sea fleet’s base in the port city of Sevastopol in occupied Crimea, Moscow has suspended its participation in the Black Sea grain initiative. This was a deal to allow grain ships to depart safely from Ukrainian ports which was brokered by the UN and Turkey in July and which became operational on August 1. Since then, an estimated 9.5 million tonnes of grain and other foodstuffs have been moved out of Ukraine under the deal.

Pulling out of the grain deal, however, has consequences far beyond Ukraine and again raises the spectre of a worsening global food crisis. Global prices for wheat and corn rose by up to six percent in response to the Russian announcement. The decision also affected more than 200 ships involved in getting Ukrainian grain to world markets through a safe sea corridor from the Ukrainian ports of Chornomorsk, Odesa and Pivdennyi to Turkey.

The combined and linked problems of supply shortages and rising prices is particularly problematic for low-income countries. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the war in Ukraine has altered “the global patterns of food production and supply”. This has led to a situation in which, says the IRC, “inflation in low-income countries has surged to almost 90 percent, with 345 million people estimated to experience acute food insecurity this year”.

The World Food Programme has pointed out that an already existing global food crisis has been further exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. It has become a major driver of instability and conflict – including in severely affected countries like Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Unsurprisingly, there has been widespread condemnation of Russia’s actions, led by UN secretary-general António Guterres who suspended his departure for the Arab League Summit in Algiers by a day to focus on the issue. Guterres noted that, as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, grain had piled up in Ukrainian silos and ships had been unable to safely leave with their cargoes, meaning that “increasing numbers of people found themselves on the brink of famine”.

For now, the other three parties to the Black Sea grain initiative – the UN, Turkey and Ukraine – have committed to keep to the deal as much as possible in order to continue to help vital Ukrainian exports. This is particularly important as the deal has, according to UN estimates, “indirectly prevented some 100 million people from falling into extreme poverty”.

Yet it also includes the potential makings of the next round of escalation. Russia could start intercepting grain ships in the safe sea corridor and carry out “inspections” of its own as a form of thinly veiled harassment of civilian shipping operators. “Accidents” with mines would be a possible further step and ultimately the Kremlin could resume a full-scale blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports.

Russian pressure

There’s no escaping the fact that this is another calculated Russian move to escalate an already deeply worrying crisis. Part of the Russian strategy is to shift the blame onto Ukraine and its allies.

The statement from the Russian foreign ministry suspending Moscow’s participation in the deal accused Ukraine of using “the cover of the humanitarian corridor set up for the implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative” for its attack on the Russian Black Sea fleet.

The statement further alleged that this was a terrorist attack “led by British specialists”. It had apparently been directed “against Russian ships ensuring the functioning of the humanitarian corridor”. Russia has provided no evidence to back up any of this.

Another part of Russia’s strategy is to continue to increase pressure on Kyiv to return to the negotiation table. Just days before Russia suspended the grain deal, Vladimir Putin commented at the annual meeting of the Valdai Club – a Moscow-based thinktank and discussion forum which he has a close association with – that Russia was ready to talk and that the US should force Ukraine to restart negotiations.

This “offer” of negotiations, was reiterated by the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in a TV interview on the lessons of the Cuban missile crisis. But it remains unacceptable to Ukraine and its western partners for as long as Russian troops occupy Ukrainian territory.

This has been a long-established Ukrainian position and is unlikely to change. Any agreement to negotiations now would most likely imply a ceasefire and freeze the frontlines at a time when Ukraine is still making at least modest gains in liberating parts of Russian-occupied territories – especially around Kherson in the south of the country. Meanwhile, Russian efforts to capture more of the Donetsk region have made very little, if any, progress.

Russian efforts to freeze the frontline have also included more attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure. A barrage of missile attacks hit 18 civilian infrastructure facilities across ten regions of Ukraine, leading to widespread power cuts, including in the capital Kyiv.

This, of course, is another way in which Moscow seeks to put pressure on Ukraine’s leaders to cut a deal. But with more than 70 percent of Ukrainians still supporting fighting until victory, the chances of the Kremlin succeeding in this regard also appear limited.

This exposes Russia’s suspension of its participation in the Black Sea grain initiative for what it is: a reckless and cowardly move by the Kremlin that puts the lives of potentially tens of millions of people on the line who are not simply pawns in an increasingly desperate game of brinkmanship.


Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security, University of Birmingham 

Published under a Creative Commons license from TheConversation.com