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[ANALYSIS] Erdoğan, Putin using food crisis as both carrot and stick with the West

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Fatih Yurtsever*

Since Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea could not be used because of a Russian naval blockade, grain exports from these ports were halted. To prevent a possible food crisis globally, especially in North Africa and the Middle East, the need for an agreement between Russia and Ukraine to transport millions of tons of grain stored in Ukrainian silos to world markets provides Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with new opportunities to extend his political life. The prolongation of the political life of Erdoğan, who has been called Putin’s “Trojan horse” in NATO in the Western media because of his opposition to Finland and Sweden’s membership in NATO, is essential not only for himself but also for Russia and Putin.

Erdoğan, who has assumed the role of mediator in the Ukraine crisis and continues his relations with both countries, has received partial credit for this role from NATO and EU countries. Because of the crisis he caused by threatening to veto Finland and Sweden’s bids to join NATO, he is now trying to restore his image in the eyes of Western countries. Putin supports Erdoğan’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the grain crisis in Ukraine because Putin wants to keep Erdoğan in the Western bloc and use him for his own purposes within NATO if necessary. So far, Erdoğan’s attempt to blackmail NATO and the EU has supported Putin’s as well as his own political goals.

His leading role in resolving the food crisis could make Erdoğan a key leader in solving problems again. Erdogan’s telephone conversations on May 30, first with Putin and then with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the statements made afterward show that concrete progress has been made in this regard.

Russia has been subjected to heavy sanctions by many Western countries in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Russia responded to the war-related sanctions with embargoes in the food and energy sectors. Russia currently de facto blockades Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea and bans grain exports from Ukraine.

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), before Russia’s invasion Ukraine exported 4.5 million tons of agricultural produce per month through its ports — 12 percent of the planet’s wheat, 15 percent of its corn and half of its sunflower oil.

 Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea is hurting the Ukrainian economy and plunging the world into a new food crisis. The ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk, and other ports in the Black Sea have been blocked off by Russian warships, so grain can only be transported via congested, inefficient land routes. With limited alternative capacity and only land routes available, 90 percent of grain exports from Ukraine cannot be transported. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 25 million tons of grain are in silos in Ukrainian ports. This has significant ramifications for the world’s food supplies. Global grain prices have reached their highest level.

One of Russia’s political goals is to get what it wants in Ukraine by keeping the danger of a food crisis on the agenda and forcing the international community to accept the conditions it has set for Ukraine.

However, the rapid approach of a food crisis due to the blockade imposed by Russia has mobilized the international community. Speaking on May 18 at a major United Nations summit in New York on worldwide food insecurity, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Russia to free up exports of Ukrainian grain. “Let’s be clear: there is no effective solution to the food crisis without reintegrating Ukraine’s food production. The war in Ukraine compounded global food insecurity, raising the number of severely food-insecure people in the world from 135 million in 2019 to 276 million now,” he said. David Beasley, head of the UN World Food Programme, warned that “failure to open the ports will be a declaration of war on global food security, resulting in famine and destabilization of nations as well as mass migration by necessity.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said, “Moscow is ready to open a safe corridor for ships carrying grain in the Black Sea to lift some Western sanctions against Russia.” As the statement indicates, Russia is using its control over Ukraine’s grain exports as diplomatic leverage against the West to get it to lift sanctions imposed on Russia.

The US and EU countries have decided to send Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Ukraine to weaken the blockade of Ukrainian ports imposed by Russia. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Denmark would provide Ukraine with a modern Harpoon anti-ship system and missiles to protect its coasts. Former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe Admiral (ret.) James Stavridis suggested in a Bloomberg article that NATO establish a US-led naval task force that could also include Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria to escort merchant ships to break the blockade of the Ukrainian port Odesa in the Black Sea.

Vice Admiral Keith Blount, commander of Allied Maritime Command NATO, paid an official visit to Varna, Bulgaria, on May 10, 2022 to focus on security in the Black Sea. Blount said he could not provide information on the alliance’s operational plans but assured that NATO had no plans to stay out of the Black Sea for long. Turkey has enacted Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, which prohibits the passage of belligerent warships (Ukrainian and Russian warships) from Feb. 28, 2022. There is currently no obstacle for the warships of the member countries of NATO to be in the Black Sea as long as they comply with the tonnage and daily limits set by the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits.

Increasing international pressure and the possibility of NATO ships stepping in for a solution to ease the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports by escorting merchant vessels in the Black Sea have forced Russia to act to avoid losing its control over Ukraine’s grain exports.

According to Reuters, “Turkey is negotiating with both Russia and Ukraine to export grains from Ukraine,” an official said, requesting anonymity because the talks were confidential. “With a corridor to be opened from Turkey, there was a demand for this grain to reach their targeted markets. Negotiations are still ongoing,” the source added.

The information note released by the Kremlin after the phone call between Erdoğan and Putin states that the Russian side is ready to help transport grain from Ukrainian ports by ship in coordination with Turkish partners. The game we know and are used to is being restaged. Putin offers Erdoğan, his Trojan horse in NATO, a new opportunity to renew his image in NATO, both at home and abroad. The EU and NATO now need to understand the dynamics of Putin-Erdoğan relations. Erdoğan cannot continue the attempt to blackmail without Putin’s backing. To stop Putin, the West must first say “no” to Erdoğan’s blackmail policy. There is a vital foundation in military strategy: Tactical maneuvers cannot correct strategic mistakes. If the West does not consider this in its relationship with Erdoğan, Erdoğan will become a more extensive security problem in the long run.

* 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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