January 27, 2023

If more evidence was needed for the Kremlin’s cynicism, it came this weekend. Barely had the ink dried up on a deal to resume grain exports from blocked Ukrainian ports the day before, when Russia hit the port of Odessa with two cruise missiles; two more were shot. The grain deal, brokered by the UN and Turkey, was intended to prevent a global food crisis, for which the World Food Program has warned 47 million additional people could go into acute hunger. If the hard-fought deal now fails, the responsibility rests with Moscow.

Russia’s Black Sea blockade has taken a dangerous toll on a global food supply chain already under strain from coronavirus disruptions and poor harvests. Before the invasion of Moscow in February, Ukraine was the world’s fifth largest exporter of wheat, an essential supplier to countries in the Middle East and Africa. Restrictions on Ukrainian exports have left 22 million tons of wheat, maize and other grains stuck in silos. Food shortages and price increases are already affecting economies in developing countries.

The missile attack is especially damaging because Friday’s deal relied largely on confidence that Russia would abide by its commitments not to attack commercial ships carrying grain from Ukrainian ports. Officials warned it was unclear how it would be enforced in case of violations. Trust between Kiev and Moscow is so flawed that the two did not sign an agreement between each other, but parallel agreements with the UN and Ankara.

Ukraine won’t be demining its ports on a large scale — leaving them vulnerable to Russian attacks — but its pilots will direct merchant ships through secure channels. In return for pledges to make that happen, Russia won UN and EU guarantees to shipowners and insurance companies that they could export Russian grain and fertilizers without violating Western sanctions.

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In fact, Russia gave no guarantee that it would not attack areas of Ukrainian ports not directly involved in grain exports, so Saturday’s strike on what Moscow said were military targets did not technically break the agreement. Yet traders were already skeptical about how much ship owners would be willing to take the risk of entering Ukrainian ports or paying the high risk premiums insurers will demand. While Kiev has rightly pledged to continue preparations for grain exports, even as it condemns Moscow’s attack, and calls on commercial ships to join “caravans”, there are questions about how significant grain can be safely loaded if the Russian bombardment continues in the vicinity.

Moscow can be quietly satisfied. It has complicated Kiev’s life by restarting exports. It has also pushed up wheat futures prices, which fell after Friday’s deal, so it will earn more from exporting its own grain that may be made easier by that deal — or from products smuggled out of Ukraine and renamed. as “Russian”. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has since been sent to several African capitals to insist that Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia, not the invasion of Moscow, are the cause of the food crisis.

Western countries must continue to do everything they can to enable alternative export routes, including by truck and train, for Ukrainian grain and be ready to provide massive relief to countries hit by shortages. They should also engage in stronger diplomacy with developing countries that are notably more sympathetic to the Kremlin’s version of what is happening in Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked conflict continues to threaten millions of people with famine. If that fate continues, Moscow must not escape the consequences.

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