Western countries are hoping Beijing can help pressure Moscow into rejoining a key global food security deal after the Kremlin formally pulled out of the agreement Monday.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative, which suspended a Russian naval blockade that kept Ukrainian food supplies from reaching global markets, has served as a key lifeline to poor countries across Africa and the Middle East struggling with widespread drought and famine conditions.
But China has increasingly turned to Ukraine as a source of grain and other key food supplies in recent years and is the top destination for grain shipments facilitated by the fragile diplomatic agreement, which was first brokered by the U.N. and Turkey a year ago and extended several times. Now Western officials are looking to the Chinese government, one of Russia’s most influential allies, to prod them back to the negotiating table, something Moscow has not ruled out.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials fear Moscow wants to crush Ukraine’s agricultural-dependent economy and potentially trap the 2023 wheat harvest behind its blockade. But both Ukrainian and U.S. officials still privately expressed hopes that Russia could rejoin the agreement, after Moscow demanded more concessions to secure its own food and agricultural exports. U.S. officials have long dismissed Russian claims that U.S. sanctions are impeding their food exports, arguing Moscow’s war is the root of the problem.
“I hope [Beijing] will give some signal,” to encourage Russia to rejoin the agreement, said a Ukrainian official, who was granted anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Western officials, including those in the Biden administration, weren’t surprised by the Kremlin’s move to pull out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Russian officials have been threatening for months to leave the agreement if they didn’t receive more concessions, including readmitting Russia’s government-run agricultural bank to the global financial payments system known as SWIFT. Moscow has also made demands around restarting a key Russian ammonia pipeline in Ukrainian territory. The move has received mixed reviews on Capitol Hill since it would provide Moscow with a new cash infusion.
Still, the long-feared move generated outrage in Washington and poor countries who have been relying on the diplomatic agreement for critical food supplies.
“It’s unconscionable,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Monday. “This should be restored as quickly as possible and I hope that every country is watching this very closely.”
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close ally of President Joe Biden, told POLITICO Russia’s decision to terminate the Black Sea grain deal “will lead to famine and food insecurity at a time when drastic weather events and Russia’s war in Ukraine are already driving up prices in global food markets in Africa, the Middle East, and around the globe.”
“We will definitely see the vulnerability compounding for the populations in East Africa that are already food insecure,” echoed Shashwat Saraf, the International Rescue Committee’s regional emergency director based in Kenya. The region, Saraf noted, is increasingly reliant on food imports amid unrelenting drought and lingering pandemic fallout.
Some international aid agencies noted, however, that the grain deal is only one piece of the global food security puzzle.
“While this grain deal has played a part in calming skyrocketing food prices, it is not the cure-all for world hunger,” said Hanna Saarinen of U.K.-based anti-poverty charity Oxfam.
In addition to providing some key food supplies for hungry populations, Biden administration officials argue one of the biggest benefits of the Black Sea grain agreement is that it has significantly helped stabilize food prices around the world. New market volatility following Russia’s move to leave the deal comes as Biden is trying to calm voters’ concerns about the economy and stubbornly high grocery prices as he ramps up his 2024 reelection bid. In a series of public remarks last summer, Biden appeared especially focused on unlocking Ukraine’s grain as a means to stop the steep increase in food prices.
“Every shipment under the Initiative has contributed to reducing hardship in the world’s poorest countries, since bringing grain to world markets lowers food prices for all,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Adam Hodge said.
Ukraine’s infrastructure minister called Monday for the deal to continue even without Russia’s compliance, with Turkey and the U.N. providing key security assurances. But the Ukrainian official, who was granted anonymity to discuss private conversations, said it didn’t appear that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a key negotiator in keeping the deal alive up until now, was willing to provoke Moscow by trying to provide ships with safe passage from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to Istanbul without Moscow’s blessing.
But without Russia’s compliance, the issue of security in the Black Sea is a major concern for shipping companies and larger security in the region as Ukraine’s military tries to push back Russian troops.
As POLITICO first reported, Russia’s government sent the Joint Coordination Committee of the Black Sea Grain Initiative a letter in April that warned ship registrations would only continue until mid-May. It also appeared as a veiled threat that Russia’s military could start attacking commercial ships in the Black Sea after that date, no longer bound by the safe passage rules of the agreement.
The Kremlin renewed those threats to ships in the Black Sea after it announced its departure from the grain deal Monday.
The one ray of hope for Western officials at the moment lies in Moscow’s suggestion that it could reenter the agreement if it receives additional concessions.
“That gives Erdoğan room to work with,” said Alper Coşkun, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“I think President Erdoğan has made clear that this initiative is extremely important to him. So has the U.N. Secretary General. And I believe President Xi and senior Chinese officials have also at times made clear that they want to see global markets and these commodities work smoothly,” Jim O’Brien, the State Department’s head of sanctions, said in an interview. “So how those countries react, it will be up to them.”
Matt Berg and Susannah Savage contributed to this report.