In the days following Russia and Ukraine’s grain deal with Turkey and the United Nations (UN), Moscow has launched a series of attacks in the Black Sea region where grain shipments have been stuck for months, putting the deal’s future into question.
The July 22 agreement will enable Kyiv to export 22 million tons of grain and other agricultural products trapped in Black Sea ports due to the war that started on Feb. 24. It is not yet clear when the exports will resume, but the UN said Monday could be in the coming days. Russia will also be able to move its grain and fertilizer.
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The Black Sea strikes in light of the deal, which the UN’s top official described as a “beacon of hope,” is a stark reminder that Russia will not slow its war effort in Ukraine, said Andrew Rasiulis, a defence expert with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“In the middle of a war, there should always be concerns. This deal could be broken at any point in time that the Russians feel it’s in their interest to break the deal,” he told Global News.
“They’re not going to break treaties for the sake of breaking treaties. They do whatever is in their interest to do.”
What’s going on in the Black Sea?
Moscow has bombed several targets in Black Sea cities, such as the major port town Odesa, since the grain deal was reached last Friday.
The latest strike came on Tuesday, when Russia hit private buildings and port infrastructure in Odesa and Mykolaiv with air strikes. Russia previously attacked Odesa’s port over the weekend, hitting what it called a military boat with cruise missiles on Sunday.
On Saturday, two Russian cruise missiles hit the port’s infrastructure and Ukrainian air defences brought down two others, the Ukrainian military’s Southern Command said at the time. It didn’t specify the damage or say whether the strike caused casualties.
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The British military said Tuesday there was no indication that a Ukrainian warship and a stockpile of anti-ship missiles were at the site.
Moscow has claimed its strikes were geared towards military targets, but there’s likely another reason behind the strikes in the Black Sea, said Aurel Braun, professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto.
“Vladimir Putin wants to continue to define the rules of the game,” he told Global News.
“He basically wants to terrify and humiliate opponents and to send the message that no matter what agreement there may be, no matter what statements might be made by Russia or by western countries, Russia can and will target Ukraine anywhere at any time.”
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How could this impact the grain deal?
Moscow has insisted the strikes would not affect grain deliveries. During a visit to the Republic of Congo on Monday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the grain agreements do not prevent Russia from attacking military targets, as Moscow has claimed.
Russia and Ukraine are major global wheat suppliers, and Moscow’s invasion sent food prices soaring, stoking a global food crisis the World Food Programme said has pushed some 47 million people into “acute hunger.”
Both sides have blamed each other for the food crisis: Moscow has accused Kyiv of failing to remove sea mines at the ports to allow safe shipping and insisted on its right to check incoming ships for weapons. Ukraine has argued that Russia’s port blockade and launching of missiles from the Black Sea made any shipments unviable.
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Ukraine had also sought international guarantees that Russia wouldn’t use the safe corridors to attack Odesa. Ukraine has also accused Moscow of stealing grain and deliberately targeting Ukrainian fields to set them on fire.
Friday’s deal makes provisions for the safe passage of ships from three key Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea: Odesa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny.
The plan involves Ukrainian pilots guiding grain ships along safe channels in its territorial waters with a minesweeper vessel on hand as needed. Ships entering and leaving will be inspected in a Turkish port to ease Russian fears they could be smuggling weapons.
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Kyiv could export 60 million tonnes of grain in eight to nine months if its ports were not blockaded, but Russia’s strike on the port of Odesa showed moving it won’t be easy, an economic adviser to the Ukrainian president said on Sunday. Ukraine will need 20 to 24 months to export those volumes if its ports are not functioning properly, the adviser added.
“Ukraine has no choice but to sell the grain because otherwise it’ll rot in the silos, and the silos need to be empty so they can put the new harvest in and they need the revenue; they have not found another effective way of selling it except through the ports,” Braun said.
“They will not be as large and as fast as they would be otherwise if there had been a western-protected corridor, and there’s no other choice Ukraine has so grain shipments will go ahead, but Ukraine will continue to suffer economically from it.”
After the first strike in Odesa on Saturday, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said Russia would “bear full responsibility for a global food crisis” in case of “non-fulfillment.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement that day the deal must be upheld.
“These products are desperately needed to address the global food crisis and ease the suffering of millions of people in need around the globe,” he said.
“Full implementation by the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Turkey is imperative.”
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Right now, it’s not in the interest of Russia to break the deal, Rasiulis explained, given Lavrov’s trip to Africa, where Moscow is trying to enhance relations. Many African nations import Russian grain and increasingly energy too, but they also buy Ukrainian grain and benefit from western aid flows and trade ties.
“Besides generating some measure of funding for themselves … Russia has a foreign policy interest in Africa. This is where the grain is so important, so this is very much to shore up and reinforce Russia’s foreign policy partners in international relations in Africa, who the Russians are nurturing,” he said.
“It is in their interest to keep the deal going because this grain is important for Africa and Lavrov is building relations in Africa.”
— with files from The Associated Press and Reuters
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