Russia’s two main partners, China and Turkey, believe it should reopen a deal with the UN on the export of Ukrainian grain. But Vladimir Putin is not responding to them. He is pushing his own line, insisting that Russia, with its record wheat harvest, can substitute for Ukrainian supplies. And he is bombing Ukrainian ports to drive up prices.
Putin is ignoring Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s requests to discuss returning to the grain deal, diplomats told The Wall Street Journal. While Erdogan has said several times in recent weeks that he intends to discuss it with Putin, they said, so far they have not spoken. Turkish officials continue to urge the Kremlin through various channels to enter talks.
Ankara angered Moscow when it returned Azov battalion commanders to Ukraine (who under the terms of the prisoner-of-war exchange were to remain in Turkey until the end of the war) and agreed to allow Sweden to join NATO, diplomats and analysts say. The moves are just one of several that Erdogan has made toward the West since being re-elected president in May. Gulru Gezer, a former senior diplomat who worked at the Turkish embassy in Moscow, told WSJ, “I don’t think Putin trusts Erdogan as much as he used to. I believe there is a questioning of his position in Russia and especially in the Kremlin. It’s unusual that he [Putin] doesn’t return calls”.
For his part, Erdogan may consider Putin’s position undermined after the Wagner PMC mutiny. He himself needs to deal with the dire economic situation, and for that he needs to develop cooperation with the West, with which Erdogan has been in conflict for the past few years. “We are at a new stage of Turkish-Russian relations: now Putin needs Erdogan less and Erdogan needs Putin more”, said Sinan Ulgen, a former diplomat and director of the Istanbul-based Edam think tank.
Russian officials (Putin did it again on Friday at the Russia-Africa summit) like to accuse Western countries of hypocrisy, pointing out that Ukrainian products under the grain deal (and 32.8 million tons of them were exported) went to European countries, not to needy African ones. Such statements conceal two facts.
Ukraine’s biggest client is actually China, not Europe. According to UN data, China bought 24.2% of grain exported across the Black Sea as part of the grain deal.
Turkey ranked 3rd among importers of Ukrainian grain (9.9%), Egypt, where food inflation has reached 60%, ranked 4th (4.7%). Among developing countries the top 10 also include Bangladesh and Tunisia. In addition, Ukraine sells grain to the UN Food Program.
Another fact is the impact of aggregate supply on prices. The availability of supplies, wherever they go, keeps world prices in check, helping poor countries to spend affordable money on food purchases.
A week ago, Taras Kachka, Ukraine’s deputy economy minister and trade representative, discussed trade and economic cooperation in Beijing, including increasing exports and diversifying supplies of Ukrainian agricultural products to China. And on Sunday, Beijing told the UN Security Council that the grain deal should be resumed, given its importance for global food security. In addition, Chinese state media published a series of articles on the need to extend it, the WSJ noted.
“China is publicly signaling that it very much wants the Black Sea Grain Initiative to continue”, says Caitlin Welsh, an expert on food and water security at the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But Putin said this week before the Russia-Africa summit that Russia “is able to substitute Ukrainian grain”, and added yesterday at the forum itself that it is the country that “makes a significant contribution to global food security and is a solid, responsible international supplier of agricultural products”, since its share of the global wheat market is 20 percent, while Ukraine’s is less than 5 percent.
In fact, Ukraine’s share is about 10% (2017-2021 average). In addition, Welsh points out, Russia cannot substitute Ukrainian corn supplies to China.
Ukraine’s share in global corn exports is 15%, while Russia’s share is only about 2%. China, according to the UN, has purchased 34.2% of corn under the grain deal and also buys large volumes of barley, the Ukrainian Grain Association reported.
Egyptian President Abdul-Fattah Al-Sisi urged Putin at Friday’s summit to resume the grain deal, saying it was “critically important” to do so.