Russia pauses grain deal after Ukraine strikes warships in Crimea

REUTERS/Viacheslav Musiienko/File Photo
A combine harvests wheat in a field near the village of Zghurivka in Kyiv region, Ukraine August 9, 2022.

Russia suspended its participation in the U.N.-brokered deal that allowed Ukraine to export its grain and other agricultural products from Black Sea ports after claiming that Kyiv used the corridor to attack Kremlin ships, reigniting concerns about global food insecurity.

The Russian military accused Ukrainian forces of using drones to attack “military and civilian” ships near Sevastopol in Crimea in the early hours of Saturday, claiming that the strikes were carried out “with the participation of British experts.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry said separately that because of the attack it would “no longer guarantee the safety of civilian dry cargo ships participating in the Black Sea Grain Initiative and will suspend its implementation from today for an indefinite period.”

Britain responded to the drone attacks accusation by saying that Russia was making “false claims of an epic scale.” Ukraine did not officially claim responsibility for the attacks.

A video that emerged on Ukrainian Telegram channels on Saturday showed a naval drone targeting what appeared to be the Russian Admiral Makarov frigate. The Makarov had reportedly replaced the flagship of the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet, Moskva, which sank in April after Ukrainian forces hit it with Neptune anti-ship missiles. The Washington Post was not able to independently verify the authenticity of this video.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the drone attacks were largely repelled, and only one minesweeper sustained minor damage.

Moscow and Kyiv signed the grain deal in July, opening up Ukrainian Black Sea ports for exports, which had been halted after Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24.

Turkey played a key role in brokering the deal, as it has close ties with Russia and Ukraine and has sought to raise its diplomatic profile to mediate the talks between warring sides.

As part of the deal, Ukrainian pilots guided ships through the port, which Ukraine mined earlier in the war to prevent Russia from capturing key ports like Odessa.

Then the ships were given safe passage by the Russian military to sail to Turkey, which organized teams with experts from all involved parties to inspect the vessels before they set off to their destinations. Ships going into Ukraine were also inspected for weapons, a condition Moscow set to ensure the grain corridor is not used to supply Western arms to Ukraine.

More than 8 million tons of grain were exported from Ukraine as part of the deal that saw global food prices go down, according to the United Nations.

“It is vital that all parties refrain from any action that would imperil the Black Sea Grain Initiative which is a critical humanitarian effort that is clearly having a positive impact on access to food for millions of people around the world,” Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, said in a statement.

Negotiations over an extension of the deal were strained even before the ship attacks, as Moscow has indicated it may back out of the deal after repeated complaints about its implementation.

In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin floated the idea of limiting the deal, saying that the goods went to the European Union rather than to poor countries experiencing dire food shortages.

Erdogan echoed Putin’s complaints, adding that he wants to see Russian grain exported too.

“The fact that grain shipments are going to the countries that implement these sanctions [against Moscow] disturbs Mr. Putin. We also want grain shipments to start from Russia,” Erdogan said at a news conference. “The grain that comes as part of this grain deal unfortunately goes to rich countries, not to poor countries.”

After the explosion on the strategic bridge linking Crimea with mainland Russia in early October, Putin speculated that the grain corridor might have been used by Ukrainian special services to attack the highly symbolic gateway. If proven, he suggested, it would jeopardize the agreement.

Later in October, Gennady Gatilov, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said that ships under the Russian flag weren’t accepted in European ports due to sanctions and lamented difficulties in obtaining insurance and financing for Russian grain and fertilizer shipments.

Ukraine, in turn, accused Moscow of not fully implementing the deal. In one of his nightly addresses last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Russia was “deliberately delaying the passage of ships,” creating an artificial backlog of more than 150 vessels.

Zelensky said the situation with Ukraine’s food exports was becoming “more and more tense” and that Moscow was “doing everything to slow down” the process.

“I believe that with these actions, Russia is deliberately inciting the food crisis so that it becomes as acute as it was in the first half of this year,” Zelensky said.

Last week, Ukraine also accused Russia of blocking the full implementation of the deal, saying that the Ukrainian ports have recently been working at 25-30 percent of their capacity.

“Russia is deliberately blocking the full realization of the Grain Initiative,” the country’s infrastructure ministry said at the time.

In a Saturday tweet, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that Moscow was using a “false pretext” to stop Ukraine from exporting its grain and other agricultural products.

“We have warned of Russia’s plans to ruin the Black Sea Grain Initiative,” Kuleba wrote. He also called on the world community to “demand Russia to stop its hunger games and recommit to its obligations.”

The head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, Andriy Yermak, said that Moscow was engaged in “blackmail” using food products, energy, and nuclear materials, which he described as “primitive.”