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Russia Going Against the Grain

The playbook of the Russian President is full of interesting tricks that he cleverly uses to manipulate opponents and allies to serve his goals and interests.

One of these tricks is to purposefully go against the grain of pacts convened with Western parties, even if it creates a situation that may temporarily hurt Russia’s interests. That is particularly true in times of wide-scale conflicts similar to the ongoing economic standoff between Russia and Western powers. By doing so he emphasizes Russia’s importance as an indispensable actor on the world stage while confusing his opponents and forcing them to sail their ships his way.

Another interesting trick is offering empty promises about unrealistic collaborations to his allies, turning them into proxies ready to take the risk and the guilt of jumping up the forbidden tree to pick the edible fruits that he cannot reach. The recent evolvement of the relationship between Russia and Turkey, in the shadow of the ongoing war in Ukraine, is an embodiment of this.

Against the Grain

In a literal sense of the word, Russian President Vladimir Putin went against the grain, last week, to halt the ships of his Western opponents. He unexpectedly withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which is brokered by the United Nations and facilitated by the Turkish military, only nine days before the completion of the initiative’s first term of 120 days.

Out of the same mouth, Putin reiterated the unrealistic proposal to turn the Turkish Thrace region into a hub for storing and selling Russian gas to the European countries that may desire to go around the sanctions imposed on the Russian gas exports to solve their energy crises. The message that Putin has been trying to voice, here, is that Russia can do without the West by aligning with one of the most powerful members of NATO; Turkey.

On the evening of October 29th, the channel affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Defense on Telegram published a statement accusing Keiv of launching a “terrorist attack” on the Russian Black Sea fleet and civilian ships that were landing at the offshores of the occupied Crimea Island. The statement claimed that the damaged vessels at Sevastopol Port were responsible for “ensuring the security of the grain corridor,” although the grain corridor starts in Odesa about 200 kilometers away from Sevastopol. Upon this unfounded allegation, Russia decided to “stop its participation in the implementation of agreements on the export of agricultural products from Ukrainian ports.”

The Russian Defense Ministry’s statement claimed that the attacks were implemented by UAV drones and accused military “specialists from the United Kingdom” of being involved. Moscow has previously accused the UK army of sabotaging the Nord Streat pipeline. The UK and Ukraine refuted Russia’s accusations and labeled them as a pretext to justify halting the Black Sea Grain Initiative. The United States responded by accusing Russia of “weaponizing food” in a way that is hurting the well-being of humans worldwide.

Beneficiaries of the Crisis

Indeed, the Russian withdrawal from the grain deal created a state of panic about food security, especially among the economically vulnerable countries in Asia and Africa. Sharp raises in the prices of grain products hit the market immediately after the Russian announcement. The Chicago Board of Trade recorded a rise of 5.9% in December futures contracts of wheat, 1.2% in corn contracts, and 1.3% in soybean futures, as a direct result of the threats facing the Black Sea grain corridor after Russia’s withdrawal.

To avoid a backlash, especially from the Arab and Asian countries that are keeping a neutral stance toward Ukraine, the Russian Minister of Agriculture said that his country harvested 150 million tons of grain, this year. He offered to ship 500 thousand tons of grain to the poorest countries for free in the next four months, in addition to selling the rest to low-income countries, and whoever is interested, for an affordable price. On the next day of Russia’s withdrawal from the grain corridor deal, the Lebanese Minister of Public Works and Transport wrote on Twitter that the Russian Ambassador to Lebanon told him that “President Putin has decided to send 25 thousand tons of wheat and 10 thousand tons of fuel to Lebanon, to be delivered in the next two or three days.”

The UN estimates that the Black Sea Grain Initiative has “indirectly prevented some 100 million people from falling into extreme poverty.” However, the data shown on the United Nations website dedicated to monitoring the vessel movements in the Black Sea grain corridor show that the poorest countries are the least beneficiaries of the foodstuffs shipped from Ukraine in the past three months under the UN-led initiative. For example, Egypt, which is struggling with a severe economic crisis as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war, comes in the 6th position as a beneficiary of the grain corridor, after Spain, Turkey, China, Italy, and The Netherlands. While Egypt received 4.28 thousand tons, Spain and Turkey took 1.8 million tons and 1.3 million tons, respectively, out of the 9.8 million tons of Ukrainian foodstuffs shipped so far via the grain corridor.

Turkey in the Middle

The Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, whose troops monitor and facilitate the grain ships movement at the Joint Cooperation Center (JCC) in Istanbul, told the press, on November 1st, that the ten billion tonnes of grains and foodstuffs, which have been shipped from Ukraine to countries worldwide, over the past three months, have participated in relieving the prices and expected shortages of essential food supplies. “We all know that if the grain transportation stops, serious hunger problems in developing countries will happen, leading to an increase in prices of food commodities that may result in popular protests and political instability;” Hulusi Akar stressed, promising that Turkey will exert every effort possible to convince Russia to continue with implementing the deal.

On the same day, Putin had a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where he said that Russia may consider returning to the grain deal after receiving security guarantees. A readout of the call by the Kremlin highlighted Russia’s demand for “a detailed investigation into the circumstances of this incident,” as a prerequisite to resuming its involvement in the grain corridor. In addition, Russia requested “actual guarantees from Keiv of strict observance of the grain agreements, in particular on the non-use of the humanitarian corridor for military purposes.”

Turkey has been playing a terrific role in mediating talks between the Russian and the Ukrainian leaders and keeping food and humanitarian aid supplies flowing across the Black Sea, since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. However, Turkey needs to be careful not to lose the crucial point of balance in its relationships with the West and Russia – that is; the equilibrium of being a reliable NATO ally and at the same time a trusted partner of Russia. Falling easy prey to Putin’s gaslighting promises of turning Turkey into a natural gas hub may cost Turkey more than it is expected to gain.

Saving Putin’s Face

However, security guarantees are not all that Russia is looking for from breaking the Black Sea grain deal. In the phone call with Erdogan, Putin complained about the failure of the involved parties to “fulfill the second part of the agreement, related to unblocking the exportation of Russian agricultural products and fertilizers to world markets.”

In other words, Putin is trying to save himself from losing the economic battle against the West in the coming few months. Russia has lost access to the Baltic Sea ports due to the economic boycott applied by European countries in solidarity with Ukraine. That caused Russia to lose a huge market for its food exports. At the same time, the destruction of the Nord Stream pipeline and the insistence of European countries to seek alternative gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean is making Russia lose its economic leverage over Europe. Russia’s sudden withdrawal from the grain deal and teaming with Turkey to revolve around the European sanctions on its gas exportations are only means to the end of saving Putin’s face.

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