On July 17, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced that Russia would suspend the Black Sea Grain Initiative until Moscow’s demands to get its own food and fertilizer to the world are met. While Peskov claimed it was unrelated, the announcement followed a Ukrainian-led attack on a Crimean bridge, a vital supply line for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. Russia has since retaliated, attacking Ukrainian wheat exports by striking Ukraine’s main inland port across the Danube River. As a result of Russia’s suspension and escalation, millions of vulnerable people who depend on Black Sea supply routes, particularly in the Global South, may face starvation.
After two days of meetings and negotiations from July 27–28, several African leaders left the Russia-Africa Summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, with no guarantees of Black Sea supply lines reopening. “We remain committed to assisting our African partners in every possible way to help them strengthen their national and cultural sovereignty, to play a more active role in resolving regional and global challenges,” Vladimir Putin said preceding the summit. However, while Putin promised Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Eritrea, and the Central African Republic somewhere between 25,000 to 50,000 tons of Russian grain in the next three to four months, this pales in comparison to the 725,000 tons of grain shipped by the UN World Food Program under the grain deal.
Since July 2022, the Black Sea Grain Initiative, initially brokered by the UN and Turkey, has been responsible for 32.9 million metric tons of grain that have left the Black Sea. These exports primarily include corn, wheat, sunflower meal and oil, barley, and rapeseed. The United Kingdom claims that 61 percent of these exports went to low- and middle-income countries, as the price of grain stabilized at $800 per ton, down from a high of $1,360. Russia has claimed that much of the grain exported through the deal was not reaching lower-income countries. However, the export destinations were never part of the deal.
China and Turkey retain a fair amount of leverage in facilitating a successful Black Sea Grain Initiative. Since the advent of the Russo-Ukrainian War, Russia’s reliance on Ankara and Beijing as trade partners has grown exponentially as they refuse to join Western sanctions on Moscow. With China being the primary beneficiary of the initiative, the West hopes Beijing will pressure Moscow to reenter the grain deal. Beijing has stressed the importance of the grain deal’s continuation in the past, even including it in its own peace plan. Refusing to reenter the agreement may entail consequences for the relationship between Russia and China. Ankara, on the other hand, has provided a “critical lifeline” to Moscow throughout the conflict, with mutual trade volumes increasing by around 93 percent. The Kremlin has admitted that Ankara is an essential logistics hub and “one of the few countries that maintains dialogue at a high level” with Russia. While African leaders did not have the leverage to sway Moscow’s stance on the grain deal significantly, Putin’s upcoming visit with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will be an opportunity for the latter to emphasize the importance of maintaining the grain deal—he has already proposed a three-month extension of the deal.
Does the United States have a role to play in facilitating the restoration of the Black Sea Grain Initiative? The main action item for Washington should be to discourage the Ukrainian military from striking targets on the Crimean Peninsula. While 64 percent of Ukrainians want Kyiv to retake all of Ukraine’s occupied territory, including Crimea, the peninsula has long been recognized as a bright red line for Moscow. According to Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu, retaliation by Russia could involve dragging the United States and the United Kingdom into the conflict. Statements by Ukrainian officials that Crimea will be “liberated” and one-off, non-strategic attacks against targets on the peninsula have needlessly jeopardized the grain deal.
While the United States has not invested much diplomatic capital into maintaining the Black Sea Grain Initiative, it should bolster Turkey to continue its leadership role in prodding Russia back into the grain deal. Working jointly with Ankara and Kyiv will be critical for establishing conditions that facilitate a realistic extension of the grain initiative.
In future negotiations with Moscow, the collective West should also emphasize that Russia will continue to be negatively affected by its actions. Russia’s lack of ships and Western grain traders’ diminishing desire for business with Moscow are contributing to the rising costs of moving Russian wheat. Rising prices have also forced Russia to utilize older and smaller vessels, which harms efficiency.
Lastly, the United States and the European Union should also divert energy from investing in expensive overland alternatives to Black Sea routes. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby suggested that the United States work with its EU allies and other partners to find new ways to get Ukrainian crops. However, these routes are costly and inefficient and will increase Western involvement in the conflict. Instead, the West has a more cost-effective option in diplomatically working with Ankara to utilize its leverage.
The fate of the Black Sea Grain Initiative relies primarily on the actions of China and Turkey. China and Turkey will act within their own interests to revitalize the grain deal. However, the West can do its part by discouraging Ukrainian recklessness, investing diplomatic capital into the deal, and avoiding costly, inefficient projects.
Alex Little is an MS graduate of Georgia Tech and specializes in Russian and Central Asian affairs.