National interests driving responses to Ukraine grain deal

The UN and Turkey last month brokered an agreement between Russia and Ukraine to resume exports of Ukrainian grain via the Black Sea to address rising food prices worldwide amid the ongoing conflict. It allows for the safe transportation of fertilizer and commercial foodstuffs by merchant ships from three key Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea: Chornomorsk, Yuzhny and Odesa.

Both Russia and Ukraine are among the world’s top producers of grain, cooking oil and fertilizer. Based on this agreement, Ukrainian naval vessels will escort ships carrying the grain, while Russia will not attack the warships or any infrastructure. The UN and Turkey’s role will be in inspecting the cargo ships to make sure they are not used to smuggle weapons.

Following the lengthy negotiations, the two sides now hope to achieve their specific objectives. Ukraine expects that the deal will allow the export of 22 million tons of wheat and other cereal, bringing $10 billion into its economy — critical cash for a country that is expected to lose up to half of its gross domestic product this year. It is hoped this will help bring down wheat prices, sparking a chain reaction that will also reduce the price of other goods.

Opening Ukraine’s ports, as Alexandra Prokopenko of Carnegie explained, will negate Russia’s own fertilizer and grain exports. The easing of sanctions was not considered as a condition of the agreement, but it was negotiated with the US and EU. This reflects the view of Russia’s policymakers, with Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko stating that Moscow hopes its partners in the grain deal and other export agreements will fulfill their obligations and lift some of the sanctions against Moscow.

It should be noted that the grain deal was signed at a critical moment for European energy supplies, which creates even more pressure between Russia and the EU; therefore, perhaps this will further complicate relations. This is suggested by the report that, less than 24 hours after Russia and Ukraine signed the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Russian missiles hit the port of Odesa.

The UN condemned the strike and called on all players involved in this deal to follow the agreement. The Russian position, expressed by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, was that the missile strikes were a result of activity “in the so-called military part of the Odesa port.” Lavrov stressed that, despite the deal, Russia would not begin withdrawing from any of the Ukrainian ports it controls. Consequently, the agreement does not improve relations between Russia and the EU, and is in fact another cause for complications.

At the same time, it creates an opportunity for Russia to strengthen its links with the rest of the world, especially the Middle East and North Africa region. Since the beginning of the conflict, the leaders of states such as Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel have all outlined their concerns over the blocking of grain exports via the Black Sea.

Having already experienced the so-called Arab Spring, they stressed that food supply issues could destabilize the region. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that, as soon as the agreement was signed, Lavrov visited Africa. Egypt has already canceled an order for 240,000 tons of Ukrainian grain.

However, some African states, such as Ethiopia, could become competitors in the future. Addis Ababa has adopted an economic strategy aimed at reaching self-sufficiency in terms of food and the government is making every effort to achieve this goal. Ethiopia produced about 2.6 million tons of grain in the first half of this year, which meant it was possible to fully satisfy the needs of the domestic market.

Thanks to the efforts of the government with assistance from the African Development Bank, Ethiopia plans to begin exporting wheat and other food products to other African countries in the near future.

The agreement does not improve relations between Russia and the EU, and is in fact another cause for complications.

Dr. Diana Galeeva

Therefore, within a fortnight of the Ukraine grain deal being signed — and with one provocative incident already — it might be challenging to give any clear implications. The agreement is already a victory in some regards, as it will lessen the dramatic implications of the conflict on food security worldwide.

However, despite states being serious about the deal, all sides are interested in using it for their national interests. For example, Russia’s interest in exporting wheat to Africa suits its national economic interests.

Further competition can now be expected for global wheat supply, beginning with Egypt canceling its collaboration with Ukraine, which indirectly shows its interest in dealing with Russia.

It is quite clear that, just as the world has been polarized by countries’ differing views on the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the grain deal will also divide the world based on national interests. It is also clear after five months of this war that states’ responses are mainly based on their interests and calculations of which side is more advantageous; this directly links with which side can offer more grain.

  • Dr. Diana Galeeva

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