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[ANALYSIS] Could Russia say ‘No’ to extending the Black Sea Grain Initiative?

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Fatih Yurtsever*

On the evening of June 5, 2023, an explosion damaged the Tolyatti-Odesa ammonia pipeline in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. The pipeline runs from Tolyatti in Russia to Odesa in Ukraine and plays a vital role in the global supply of ammonia. The pipeline is a key part of the operations of TogliattiAzot, a Russian chemicals company, the world’s largest producer of ammonia and a major player in the Russian and global chemical fertilizer industry. The sabotage that led to the explosion on the pipeline could affect the future of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, with Russia raising the possibility not extending the deal in July.

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. The brokered deal has allowed for the safe passage of exports of critical grain supplies. 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 additional 120-day periods unless one of the parties signals its intention to terminate or modify the agreement. The deal was again extended on May 17 for two more months until July 17. However, the explosion on the Tolyatti-Odesa ammonia pipeline could have a negative impact on extending the deal for another 120 days in July.

On July 22, 2022, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Russian Federation and the United Nations Secretariat was signed for the duration of three years, along with the Black Sea grain deal. The MoU was aimed at providing the world market with unimpeded access to Russian food products and fertilizers. This includes impediments that may arise in the finance, insurance or logistics sectors. However, concerns regarding the corresponding MoU on Russian food and fertilizer exports are not being addressed, according to Russia.

The Russian side has demanded that Ukraine allow Russian ammonia exports through the Tolyatti-Odesa ammonia pipeline, which was suspended on Feb. 24, 2022. Russia has occasionally raised the issue that continuing the Black Sea grain deal requires fulfilling commitments made in the UN-Russia MoU to facilitate the export of Russian grain and fertilizer. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin highlighted the need for improved bank payments, transport logistics, insurance, and ammonia supplies transported via the Tolyatti-Odessa pipeline. The Ukrainian side has not yet allowed a resumption of the flow of ammonia through the pipeline, and the sabotage that led to the explosion on the pipeline’s section passing through Kharkiv has taken the debate to a new level. Russia and Ukraine blame each other for the sabotage. It will take between one and three months to repair the pipeline. Since the Kharkiv region is under Ukrainian control, Ukraine has to allow Russian teams to enter the region.

Although Russia argues that the pipeline sabotage complicates the July extension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, the reality is that the deal serves the interests of Ukraine, Russia and Turkey. For example, Russia currently benefits from being able to sell its grain to Middle Eastern and African countries via Turkey. Moreover, the continuation of the initiative has kept the US and the EU silent on the grain trade between Russia and Turkey.

However, before the most recent extension of the agreement, Russia indicated a possible reluctance to continue. This uncertainty necessitated Turkey’s intervention, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan acting as mediator. This move not only enhanced Erdoğan’s international standing by demonstrating his ability to persuade all parties involved but also inadvertently increased Russia’s influence over him. This happened because Russia provided Erdoğan with an opportunity to demonstrate his diplomatic skills.

Interestingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the deal, reportedly because of Erdoğan’s involvement. This makes sense since the two leaders maintain open lines of communication and Erdoğan is known to be able to persuade Putin. Despite anti-democratic practices, Erdoğan remains a key figure for NATO and the EU because of his role in this and similar negotiations with Russia.

Russia faces significant political risks if the deal is not extended. Since the agreement came into force in July 2022, Ukraine has transported a total of 31.6 million tonnes of grain. The main recipients are China with 7.5 million tonnes, followed by Spain with 5.8 million tonnes, Turkey with 3.1 million tonnes, Italy with 2 million tonnes, the Netherlands with 1.8 million tonnes and Egypt with 1.5 million tonnes. Of all the grain transported from Ukraine, 43 percent (around 14 million tonnes) was destined for developed countries, while the remaining 57 percent went to developing countries. Notably, these developing countries were not in favor of the Western bloc’s sanctions on Russia imposed during the Russia-Ukraine conflict. If the agreement isn’t extended, these countries will be among the hardest hit by rising food prices. Russia cannot, therefore, afford to risk losing the political support of these developing countries.

Russia also faces another risk if it refuses to extend the grain agreement. Such a refusal could prompt NATO to deploy warships to the Black Sea. The purpose of this move would be to protect merchant ships carrying Ukrainian grain, citing concerns about the navigational safety of commercial vessels in the Black Sea, particularly in the area between Odesa and the Bosporus. Such an action could bring the Montreux Convention and its implementation into focus in a way that may not be favorable to Russia.

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 NATO countries’ warships 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, NATO wants to send a warship to the Black Sea. Under these circumstances, my assessment is that Russia is likely to choose to avoid the above risks and ultimately agree to the extension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

* 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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