Russia's Withdrawal From the Black Sea Grain Initiative: Threats to Global Food Security and Geopolitical Motives

August 8, 2023
On July 17, Russia announced its intention to withdraw from the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Russia's action raises grain prices and jeopardizes global food security.

Approximately one year ago, against the backdrop of the growing threat of a global food crisis as a result of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Türkiye, the United Nations, Russia, and Ukraine signed an agreement allowing the export of Ukrainian grain and other agricultural produce via the Black Sea. Russia demonstrated its alleged willingness to "negotiate and compromise" by joining the agreement. In reality, it simply tried to avoid new sanctions and restrictions.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly 33 million tonnes of grain were shipped from Ukraine as part of the Black Sea Grain Initiative (also known as the "Grain Deal").  As a result, global food prices fell by about 20%.

Source: The United Nations

Russia repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the agreement in October 2022 and March 2023. Nevertheless, the Grain Deal was extended, and it was in effect until July 17th.  Russia stated that its requirements were not fully met as one of the reasons for its withdrawal. Furthermore, Russia's President Putin stated that the Grain Deal failed to meet humanitarian goals by reducing the risk of hunger in the poorest countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. 

However, Russia's decision to withdraw from the Black Sea Grain Initiative was not unexpected; rather, on the contrary, it was a well-planned (albeit heinous) move, given the upcoming harvest season.

By leaving the Grain Deal, Russia is pursuing the following objectives:

  • To replace Ukraine as a major competitor in the grain market
  • To increase grain exports due to the surplus
  • To strengthen its geopolitical positioning across Africa
  • To negotiate new terms for itself, including resuming the operation of the ammonia pipeline "Togliatti-Odesa" and lifting sanctions against its banks.

Even before the war, Russia and Ukraine were competitors in grain exports.  Following the full-scale invasion, Russia used all available means to seize Ukrainian agricultural markets. Pro-Russian media in Poland spread rumours about the poor quality of Ukrainian grain. The Friedrich Naumann Foundation investigated the spread of anti-Ukrainian sentiment in relation to Ukrainian grain exports.

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation investigated the spread of anti-Ukrainian sentiment in relation to Ukrainian grain exports. Despite the disproof of pesticide detection in the flour, Russia's related media outlets generated a hostile environment regarding the export of Ukrainian grain. Occupying south Ukrainian territories and bombing ports in Odesa and the Danube and facilities with grain stocks, Russia is fighting for opportunities to replace Ukraine in the global market of grain export. According to Russia's Federal State Statistics Service, Russian grain exports are expected to reach record levels in the current 2022-2023 agricultural season, from 55.5 million to 59.3 million tonnes. Arkady Zlochevskyy, the head of Russia's Grain Union, says that Russia's grain exports will increase due to a good wheat harvest aided by favorable weather conditions. However, this is not the only reason, as 10% of Russian grain is grown and transported from occupied Ukrainian territories. The Ukrainian Grain Association (UGA) informs that Russia has stolen approximately 4 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain since the full-scale invasion. According to research conducted by the Kyiv School of Economics, Russia has stolen over $613 million in Ukrainian grains and oil seeds.

Russian stockpiles have exceeded their export capacities. That is why, by withdrawing from the Black Sea Grain Initiatives and bombing Ukrainian ports and facilities with grain stock, Russia seeks a window of opportunity to replace Ukrainian grain on the global market.

On Twitter, Ukraine's MFA reports how Russia destroyed 180,000 tonnes of grain crops, 26 port infrastructure facilities, and five civilian ships during the last period of shelling Ukrainian ports in Odesa and Danube, as well as grain warehouses. Russia is attempting to convince the international community that it is capable of meeting the world's grain needs. During the Russian-African Summit, Russia's President Vladimir Putin promised to deliver grain to six African countries as humanitarian aid, as well as commercially.  Russia intends to provide from 25 to 50 thousand tonnes of free grain to Zimbabwe, Mali, Burkina Faso, Somalia, Eritrea, and the Central African Republic over the next three to four months.

However, African Union leader Moussa Assoumani stated that Russian grain will not suffice and urged Russia to return to the Grain Deal and ceasefire in order to ensure global food security. In comparison, over 3 million tonnes of grain and other foodstuffs were exported to African countries through the Black Sea Grain Initiative, according to Ukraine's MFA spokesperson Nikolenko.

What are the consequences?

Russia’s decision to withdraw from the Grain Deal caused global market volatility. According to the Chicago Board of Trade, the price of grain increases by at least 10%. Denys Marchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Agrarian Council, predicts that global grain prices and oil products could rise by up to 15%.

The IMF provides similar figures, estimating that Russia's withdrawal from the Grain Deal will raise global grain prices by 10–15%. In the short term, the price increase benefits Russia because it can sell its grain at a higher price and earn more money to fund its aggression against Ukraine.

While shelling Ukrainian cities and ports, Russia realizes that its withdrawal from the deal allows it to promote its conditions under blackmail. Russia wants to resume the operation of the ammonia pipeline "Togliatti-Odesa" to sell ammonia, which will allow it to continue sponsoring its war against Ukraine. Moreover, it calls for sanctions to be lifted for Russia to continue to supply its grain to world markets, however, no sanctions are imposed on Russia's agricultural sector, according to the EU factsheet.

Furthermore, Russia requested that the connection of Russia's banks to SWIFT be renewed, as proposed by the UN General Secretary but ignored by Russia.

To sum up, Russia will continue to blackmail the West, playing for time to use it as a “window of possibilities” in order to satisfy its export interests and harm Ukraine’s economy, all whilst demonstrating to the world community its “influence” and “irreplaceability”.

The end of the harvest is expected to be the most challenging period, as grain stores will be overloaded, the need for exports will increase, and the debate over whether the Grain Deal should be extended will probably heat up. Russia is likely to return to the Grain Deal in order to use the safety of the Black Sea for its own exports and to demonstrate "its willingness to negotiate."

Despite this, the international community continues to search for ways to transport Ukrainian grain. Previous experience shows that Solidarity Lanes is one of the best options, accounting for 60% of all Ukrainian grain exports. By blocking the Black Sea export corridor, Russia weaponizes food and consciously provokes humanitarian crises worldwide.

Maryna Yakymchuk
Analyst of Internews-Ukraine