In a diplomatic cat-and-mouse game, Russia and the West are pushing similar, if sometimes conflicting, ideas for Ukraine’s much-needed grain to be safely transported across the Black Sea to world markets. They also compete in a battle for history in front of world public opinion if plans fail. And they are waging another diplomatic battle in Africa and the Middle East to frame their adversary as the culprit behind skyrocketing food and fertilizer prices.
Russia and Ukraine export more than a quarter of the world’s wheat, and Russia is the world’s leading fertilizer exporter. The World Bank Fertilizer Price Index rose nearly 10% in the first quarter of 2022, hitting an all-time high in nominal terms. The remaining 20 million tons of grain in Ukraine must be urgently removed to avoid a new explosion in food prices, as well as to ensure that the next Ukrainian harvest, which at the moment cannot be sent to storage barns, because they are exhausted.
Shipments have been halted by a Russian naval blockade of the Black Sea port of Odessa and Ukrainian floating mines placed to protect the port from Russian attacks. Moscow, in exchange for lifting the blockade, wants sanctions to be lifted on its supplies and fertilizers. The question is whether an agreement can be reached.
Turkey as a mediator
In what is beginning to look like a master plan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 8 to discuss the possibility of Turkey clearing Odessa of mines and then escorting ships carrying grain to the Bosphorus through a naval corridor. Erdogan spoke to Vladimir Putin about the offer on Monday, and according to the Turkish version, Putin was willing to cooperate, but with conditions.
Under the 1936 Montreux Straits Convention, Turkey is the arbiter of maritime traffic in and out of the Black Sea, and it is this assigned role that it, as a member of NATO, uses to justify its refusal to impose sanctions against Russia. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday that food security is at the center of negotiations: “We are focused on food security. We want to create a center in Istanbul to be able to control the corridor.”
Regarding the role played by the countries of the European Union, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has taken a pragmatic stance and taken the initiative. Draghi discussed the issue with US President Joe Biden in mid-May; Last week, he had talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, then with Putin and, after this conversation, again with Zelensky.
Ukraine has said it is open to demining Odessa, but indicates that conditions must be created to prevent the Russian Navy from taking the opportunity to bring its warships closer to the port. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba pointed out that it is necessary to be careful, “because a unilateral guarantee from the Kremlin (not to bring positions closer together) is not enough. We need third countries to take responsibility for enforcing the agreement.”
Italy and the UK have proposed a demining operation that could take 15 days, but Turkey may be the preferred option for this dangerous task. According to Draghi, Putin has signaled that he will open access to Odessa if valid checks are made to make sure there are no weapons on the grain-carrying ships for Ukraine to use. Questions also remain unresolved about the nationality of the ships accompanying the convoy, and the conditions for their actions in the event of a threat from Russia.
According to Moscow, Putin noted the “readiness of the Russian side” to facilitate the unimpeded maritime transit of goods in agreement with Turkish partners. However, Russia wants the lifting of Western sanctions on fertilizers in return, which Draghi says Africa also demands from the EU, and this forces a reconsideration of the terms of the negotiations.
The United States is also showing some flexibility. Their UN representative, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said they were ready to send “sponsor letters” to shipping and insurance companies to facilitate the export of Russian grain and fertilizer. He pointed out that grains and fertilizers are not subject to US Treasury sanctions, but that “companies are a little nervous, and we are ready to give them an encouraging answer if it helps them to perk up.” He stressed that this is not an agreement to lift the Russian blockade of the Odessa port.
Right now, the UK and the EU could go in opposite directions by agreeing on a ban on guarding ships carrying Russian oil anywhere in the world. Distinguishing insurance for ships carrying grain from ships carrying oil is possible, but can be difficult.
Role of the United Nations
One possibility is that Rebecca Greenspan, a senior UN representative (Secretary General of the UN Conference on Trade and Development), who recently traveled to Moscow to discuss this issue, could help negotiate a draft Security Council resolution to support the humanitarian corridor, The idea was supported by French President Emmanuel Macron. A senior Western government official said he found it unlikely that “any country, not even Russia, can veto a resolution to feed the world just because Russia’s demands to lift sanctions have not been met.”
Draghi is not opposed to the UN’s participation, but fears that its entry will slow down the negotiations. “You can play an important role in resolving the crisis, but we must ask ourselves how we can help. How to speed up the negotiations so that the decision does not come too late,” he said.
Britain, Poland and the Baltic states were skeptical that Putin would agree. The UK supported Lithuania’s proposal for a convoy plan that is similar to, but independent of, cooperation with Russia. He proposed a coalition of volunteers, not NATO forces, to escort the ships.
Egypt, one of the many low- and middle-income countries heavily dependent on Ukrainian and Russian grain, has already been mentioned as one of the possible members of this coalition. British Foreign Secretary Liz Trouss, usually hard-lined or more militaristic, seemed to support the plan when she met with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis. Also highly revealing was the unusual visit of Polish President Andrzej Duda to Cairo this week to discuss the grain crisis.
General Mark Milley, US Chief of Staff, warned Tuesday in London: “Opening these sea lanes will require a very significant military effort.” If politicians decide to do so, “it will be a very risky military operation that will require significant effort,” he said. It is for this reason that Draghi, Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are all in favor of examining Putin’s intentions first.
If none of the sea route options work, the only alternative would be to intensify the use of the much more expensive existing routes that transport grain by truck through Poland to Baltic and Polish ports or by barge across the river. ports and finally by train to Poland. The option to transport grain by train through Belarus seems impossible due to Minsk’s demands to lift sanctions on potash fertilizers. At the main crossing point to Romania, a 20-kilometer traffic jam of trucks is waiting to be checked. On the Dnieper there was a line of 100 barges waiting to enter the Black Sea. Only seven boats a day are allowed to pass.
In addition to the humanitarian need to avoid starvation, Draghi sees the real and inevitable risks to the West from skyrocketing bread prices in terms of migration flows, terrorism and political instability. As an Italian official pointed out: “We have two weeks left to resolve this situation, otherwise we will face a very serious crisis.”
Translated by Emma Reverter
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