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[ANALYSIS] Putin and Erdoğan leverage Black Sea Grain Initiative for political gain

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Fatih Yurtsever*

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 led to a more than four-month-long blockade by Russian warships of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. The Black Sea Grain Initiative, brokered by Turkey and the United Nations and signed by Russia and Ukraine on July 22, 2022, established a secure corridor allowing grain exports from the Ukrainian ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhny/Pivdennyi. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, Ukraine accounts for a significant share of the global export market for various agricultural products. Specifically, Ukraine contributes 46 percent of global sunflower oil exports, 17 percent of barley, 12 percent of corn and 9 percent of wheat. As one of the world’s leading grain producers, Ukraine’s participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative has significantly mitigated the global food crisis triggered by the ongoing war in Ukraine.

According to the agreement’s Section H, the Black Sea Grain Initiative was set to remain in effect for 120 days following the date of signature of all involved parties. The initiative can be automatically extended for an additional 120-day period unless one of the parties signals its intention to terminate or modify the agreement. The initial agreement, extended in November until March 18, was expected to be renewed for another 120 days. However, following a meeting with UN officials in Geneva, Moscow proposed a 60-day extension. Kyiv was unhappy with this deviation from the original agreement but did not reject the proposal.

The Russian government has decided to shorten the deal’s extension period because concerns regarding a corresponding agreement on Russian food and fertilizer exports are not being addressed. While Western sanctions have not explicitly targeted Russia’s agricultural exports, Moscow argues that barriers to exports, such as blocks on payments, logistics and insurance prevent it from exporting its own grains and fertilizers. The agreement, signed by the UN and Russia in July 2022, exempted these products from sanctions imposed by Kyiv’s allies. Moscow expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of compliance and indicated that further decisions would be contingent on tangible progress in normalizing Russian agricultural exports. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin highlighted the need for improved bank payments, transport logistics, insurance, and ammonia supplies transported via the Tolyatti-Odessa pipeline.

Despite the claims, Reuters referenced data from the Russia-focused Sovecon consultancy, which indicates that Russia’s wheat exports from July to December are projected to rise by 2 percent to 22.9 million tons, on par with the five-year average. Furthermore, Russia’s overall grain exports for the 2022/23 season are estimated at 56.1 million tons, with wheat accounting for 43.7 million tons.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin are exploiting the Black Sea Grain Initiative to advance their political goals. Putin is utilizing the agreement to maintain Russia’s position within the international community by engaging in negotiations with the UN as a legitimate state and securing political support from the African nations most impacted by the food crisis since they rely on undisrupted grain exports. Although merchant ships transporting grain from Ukrainian ports should typically navigate the Black Sea safely under the principle of freedom of navigation, this deal leads to the UN’s tacit acknowledgement of the blockade on Ukrainian ports.

Simultaneously, Erdoğan is enhancing his image as a proactive leader who addresses crises, such as facilitating the agreement through his efforts at mediation. This strengthens his international and domestic standing, proving useful as propaganda ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections slated for May 14. For Putin, a key reason behind suggesting a 60-day extension instead of a 120-day one is the upcoming Turkish elections. He understands that preserving the Black Sea Grain Initiative to suit his objectives would be difficult without Erdoğan’s political backing. By choosing a 60-day extension, Putin aims to retain control over the initiative’s future should Erdoğan lose the presidency.

The UN could devise a solution ensuring the continuous export of Ukrainian grain to global markets, independent of Putin and Erdoğan’s influence. Addressing this issue is of worldwide importance and directly impacts food prices. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) naval operation in the eastern Mediterranean, conducted off Lebanon’s coast, could serve as a viable model for such a solution.

The UNIFIL Maritime Task Force (MTF), active since October 2006, has aided the Lebanese Navy by overseeing territorial waters, safeguarding the coastline and impeding unauthorized arms entry into Lebanon. The MTF’s deployment following the July-August 2006 Lebanon-Israel conflict was instrumental in persuading Israel to lift its naval blockade. If the UN General Assembly passes a resolution, a new naval task force could be established in the Black Sea under Turkey’s command. Comprising warships from countries such as Brazil and India, which Russia does not object to, the force would oversee arms entry into Ukrainian ports. This would help invalidate Russia’s blockade and ensure the safe navigation of grain-carrying ships in the Black Sea.

A pressing question arises regarding the feasibility of such an operation, given that Turkey has closed the straits to warship passage in compliance with the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits due to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Recognizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “war,” Turkey closed the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to Russian and Ukrainian warships, invoking Article 19 of the convention, under which warships belonging to belligerent powers may not pass through the straits. Article 19 does not give Turkey the right to close the straits to all warships, which would require the invocation of Article 21. Therefore, under the Montreux Convention, there is no legal impediment to the MFT if it is set up using the straits to enter the Black Sea since Article 19 is currently being implemented.

The Montreux Convention has significance for regulating transit and navigation in the straits and ensuring the security of Turkey and the Black Sea littoral nations. Consequently, hindering Ukraine’s grain exports poses a risk to its economic stability as well as the food security of African nations. In keeping with the spirit of the Montreux Convention, Turkey should advocate the formation of a UN-led naval task force in the Black Sea. By adhering to the convention’s specified tonnage and day limitations for foreign warships, this task force can help bolster regional security.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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