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[OPINION] Macron’s rivalry with Erdoğan puts brakes on grain deal

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan failed to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to continue the Black Sea Grain Initiative during their meeting in the Russian city of Sochi on Sept. 4. Russia had suspended the initiative in July after complaining that Western partners had not lifted restrictions on banking and logistics. Erdoğan has been a strong supporter of maintaining the grain agreement negotiated by the United Nations and Turkey in July 2022. Since then, nearly 33 million tons of grain and other food products have been exported through the initiative. French President Emmanuel Macron and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke by phone on the eve of the Erdoğan-Putin meeting about the functioning of Kyiv’s new grain corridor, which has been serving as an alternative to the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Referring to this new grain corridor, Erdoğan made clear that Turkey does not support other initiatives to transport Ukrainian grain and called on Ukrainian authorities to soften their stance on grain trade.

Putin reiterated during his online speeches at the BRICS summit held in Johannesburg Aug. 22-24 and during the meeting with Erdoğan in Sochi that Russia would be ready to return to the Black Sea grain trade if Western countries lifted sanctions against Russia. Putin responded to the alternative grain corridors that exclude Russia by ordering Russian forces to bomb the Ukrainian port of Izmail, the grain export port on the Danube in Odesa, southern Ukraine, hours before scheduled talks between him and Erdoğan.

In a statement France condemned the suspension of Russia’s participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, accusing Russia of being responsible for blocking shipping in the maritime area and imposing an illegal blockade of the Ukrainian port. On the other hand, Macron sees the failure of the Black Sea Grain Initiative as a political opportunity for France to convince the European Union to take a more active role in the Ukraine war and transport grain from Ukraine. France supports the EU Solidarity Lanes, which have been instrumental in exporting 44 million tons of grain from Ukraine since May 2022.

The EU high representative criticized Russia for constantly weaponizing food by terminating the agreement and said that “the EU will continue to support all efforts towards the resumption of the Black Sea Grain Initiative.” However, Macron, one of the EU’s most powerful leaders, has made little effort since the beginning of the year to reinstate the grain agreement negotiated by the UN and Turkey and has been busy building a close friendship with Zelensky, further provoking Russia.

In February Zelensky paid a surprise visit to France and had dinner with Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Elysée Palace in Paris. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has criticized Macron and Scholz for meeting in the absence of herself and other EU leaders.

 During the visit Zelensky was awarded France’s highest order of merit, both military and civilian, by the French president. On May 14 Zelensky again traveled to France as part of his multi-stop European tour. Macron sent a plane for Zelensky to Germany, where the Ukrainian leader met with Scholz and urged him to convince Western countries to provide fighter jets to Ukraine to repel the Russian invasion. According to various media reports, France is supplying Ukraine with a range of weapons, air defense systems, light tanks, howitzers and fuel, with Macron promising Zelensky more light tanks and armored vehicles.

It seems that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not interested in continuing the Black Sea Grain Initiative, and similar to EU leaders and Ukraine, is busy creating alternative trade routes. During his address to BRICS leaders via video link, he mentioned that Russia is busy developing alternative trade routes such as the Northern Sea Route (NSR) with new ports, fuel terminals and an expanded nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet. He also spoke of the 7,200-kilometer International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC) starting in Mumbai, running through Central Asia and the Caucasus and connecting the Russian city of St. Petersburg with ports in Iran and India.

With the EU Solidarity Lanes unfeasible and expensive, Putin’s new transport projects will not be easy to implement, as weather conditions in the Baltic Sea and many conflicts in Asia pose a major challenge to these new routes. Since Russia has terminated its grain agreement with Ukraine, Zelensky has no choice but to accept the EU’s alternative routes. However, he is aware that exporting grain by road and rail in Europe means additional logistics costs of about 40 euros per ton, making Ukrainian grain less competitive on the world market.

Politico reports that widespread dumping of Ukrainian grain in Polish markets has angered local farmers and transport companies in Poland and Romania, who remain unhappy about the thousands of Ukrainian trucks in their countries. In June the European Commission banned Ukrainian grain exports to those two countries as well as Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia until Sept. 15. Despite complaints from farmers in Eastern European countries, the EU announced joint funding of 1 billion euros to develop routes for Ukrainian grain exports, and Lithuania has proposed exporting Ukrainian grain via Poland to its Baltic port of Klaipėda and four other ports in Estonia and Latvia. The EU plans to use the ports of Hamburg and Rostock in Germany, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Rijeka in Croatia, Trieste in Italy and the Slovenian port of Koper to export Ukrainian grain.

Erdoğan has done his best to push for the resumption of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, but after returning empty-handed from Sochi, he complained that Ukraine should come to the negotiating table with Russia and export more grain to Africa instead of Europe. UN officials are currently trying to convince Russia to return to the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Putin complains that more than 70 percent of Ukrainian grain exported under the Black Sea Grain Initiative went to upper and middle-class countries, while poorer African countries received only 3 percent. Russian and Ukrainian grain is essential to global food security, but the EU is busy creating solidarity lines to import all Ukrainian grain, and Russia is taking advantage of the EU’s selfish attitude and further threatening global food security by bombing Ukrainian ports.

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