It has been almost two months since Russia terminated the United Nations–approved deal ensuring the safe export of Ukrainian wheat and corn from its Black Sea ports.
And following his most recent meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on September 4 in Sochi, Russian President Vladmir Putin seems resolute on continuing to deny Ukrainian grain access to global food markets.
Following the talks, Putin declared, “We will be ready to consider the opportunity of reviving the grain deal … after all arrangements set in it on lifting of restrictions on Russian agricultural exports are fulfilled” (TASS, September 4).
As a result, prospects for revival of the deal remain uncertain.
On the Turkish side, Erdogan has invested extensive efforts in negotiating and maintaining the grain deal and values it as a personal accomplishment. As such, he has attempted to balance between the interests of both Moscow and Kyiv in the hopes of keeping the agreement alive.
After speaking with Putin, Erdogan claimed that he would convince Kyiv to “soften” its position “in order for it to be possible for joint steps to be taken with Russia.” He also emphasized the need for expediency in resolving this matter, as many African nations are in desperate need of grain (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 4).
An increasingly unpopular move
In truth, Putin’s move is growing increasingly unpopular in the international community, even among some nations of the Global South. Moreover, Russian efforts to implement a naval blockade at Odesa have had limited effectiveness, as cargo ships continue to leave the ports there and grain is being exported via alternative routes (see EDM, August 15; Vedomosti, August 26). One Turkish ship was stopped and searched by a Russian warship; however, after strong protest from Ankara, no other interdictions have taken place since (Kommersant, August 14; RBC, September 1).
Against this backdrop, in the lead-up to the Sochi meeting, some commentators speculated that Erdogan may try to offer Putin an “off-ramp” for backpedaling on the decision to pull out from the grain deal (Izvestiya, August 30).
Yet, no such offer was extended to the Russian president. Instead, Putin persists with compromising Ukraine’s access to global markets.
Undercut influence in Africa
He tried to sell this idea at the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg in mid-July 2023, only to discover that many African leaders are perfectly aware of the issues with grain exports passing through the Black Sea and are more interested in greater stability of supply rather than Russian “gifts” (see EDM, July 31; Forbes.ru, August 14).
Russian influence in Africa has been further undercut by the demise of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who in his last days announced his intentions to expand the Wagner Group’s operations in Africa and protect his assets from the Russian military apparatus (Istories.media, August 30; The Insider, August 31). The remnants of Wagner may soon be forcefully subordinated to the Russian High Command and deployed to exploit the security chaos produced by a sequence of military coups in the Sahel region (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, August 31; see EDM, September 6).
Putin sought to erase the dark impression left by the alleged extermination of the Wagner maverick in his virtual address to the BRICS summit in Johannesburg. He was unable to attend the event in-person due to the outstanding arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (see EDM, April 19; The Moscow Times, August 29).
In his address, Putin advertised Russian grain exports yet again. He also sought to present the expansion of this loose organization as a major success in countering Western influence in the Global South (Russiancouncil.ru, September 1). Nevertheless, the invitation of six new members will hardly make the bloc any more coherent. And the anti-Western tilt may become further blurred with the inclusion of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — traditional allies of the United States (The Insider, August 26).
Ukrainian initiative on the battlefield
What constitutes perhaps the most impactful shift in Russia’s international position, however, is the sequence of Ukrainian successes in waging the long war.
Ukrainian forces retain the initiative on the battlefield and have increasingly spread the zone of direct kinetic impact to Russia’s regions and city centers (Svoboda, September 1). The offensive in the Melitopol and Berdiansk direction has broken through one Russian defensive line after another. Steady missile strikes on Crimea have been followed with landing operations carried out by detachments of Ukrainian special forces (Meduza, August 26; Novayagazeta.eu, September 1). Russia’s Crimean “fortress” was supposed to dominate the maritime theater; nevertheless, presently, the Black Sea Fleet is not safe even at its bases in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk. And the strategically vital Kerch Bridge has been attacked repeatedly by Ukrainian naval drones (Topwar.ru, September 2).
The intensity of Ukraine’s long-distance strikes is increasing exponentially, and Russian air defenses are being spread thin (Kommersant, August 30). The psychological effect of these hits, which continue to be denied by the Kremlin, and the destruction of several Il-76MD transport aircraft have made a significant dent in Russia’s strategic airlift capabilities, which are critical for sustaining its interventions in Syria and throughout Africa (Meduza, August 30).
Ankara’s balancing act between Kyiv and Moscow
Ironically, Turkey pioneered the combat use of aerial drones and cultivates military-technical cooperation with Ukraine in this fast-developing sector. It is yet another example of Ankara engaging in its delicate balancing act between Kyiv and Moscow.
However, this balance may be thrown off if Putin continues to refuse the renewal of Erdogan’s grain agreement. The Turkish president generally prefers to humor rather than irritate his Russian counterpart. Even so, Ankara holds a trump card in the form of naval capabilities sufficient for protecting and escorting grain ships coming to and leaving Odesa. And in the face of increased international pressure, Putin may soon feel he cannot afford to raise the stakes that high and seriously consider reviving the deal.
- Pavel K Baev is a Research Professor at PRIO
- This text is also published by Eurasia Daily Monitor