In July, Russia withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a wartime deal that ensured the safety of Ukrainian vessels passing through the sea shared by both nations. The collapse of the deal thwarted Ukraine’s ability to export its grains without fear of Russian retaliation.
Yet, in September, two vessels safely arrived in Ukraine’s ports without any response, violent or otherwise, from Moscow.
Now, even more ships are headed towards Ukraine, despite the looming threat that Russia might intervene with missiles at any time.
On October 4, Ukraine’s navy announced that they expected 12 more cargo vessels to arrive at Ukrainian ports. These ships are utilizing a new maritime corridor set up by Ukraine after Russia withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July 2023.
Russia’s withdrawal from the grain initiative didn’t come as a surprise, as Putin had voiced discontent with it for months prior. But now that Ukraine has found a way to circumvent Moscow’s attempts to hinder their exports, new questions arise. Is this a new phase of the war? How will Putin react to the unsanctioned corridor? Scholars at Princeton University suggest it signals Putin’s resolve to wage a more aggressive trade war, and that it’s only a matter of time before Moscow forcibly puts an end to the new corridor.
History of the grain deal
The Black Sea Grain Initiative, formally known as the “Initiative on the Safe Transportation of Grain and Foodstuffs from Ukrainian ports,” was an agreement brokered by the United Nations and Turkey between Ukraine and Russia in July of 2022. The deal guaranteed Ukraine a corridor in the Black Sea to continue exporting their grains across the world despite the war.
The deal highlighted a positive development in the war and proved a rare moment of consensus in an enduring conflict. The initiative stabilized grain prices worldwide and was lauded as a “beacon of hope” by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres. It also provided Putin with the leverage to negotiate Russia’s uninterrupted exportation of agricultural goods and fertilizer. Putin expressed that he felt this part of the deal wasn’t being upheld by the West, and despite Guterres’ efforts to meet his demands, the deal fell apart. Notably, levels of Russian exports of food are higher than they were last year, and the amount of agriculture and fertilizer exports are also significant, in contrast to Moscow’s stated grievances.
Now that Ukraine has established a new corridor for exporting their grains without Russia’s assistance or approval, it raises the question: how will Russia react? Putin’s track record of flagrant disregard for the rules of war probably won’t stop in light of this new corridor. Especially since his withdrawal from the grain deal can be thought of as both a manner of “influenc[ing] international policy” and of “blackmail[ing] the rest of the world to get what they want,” according to Yana Prymachenko, a Ukrainian research scholar in Princeton University’s Department of History.
This new corridor deal between Ukraine, Romania, and Turkey is in strict opposition to Putin’s two likely reasons for denying the corridor: establishing international influence and blackmail. Additionally, Russia itself is an exporter of grains, making it more likely that Putin will try to put a stop to this corridor.
Why a new grain corridor is important
Ukraine has long been known as the ‘breadbasket of the world.’ The renewed export of Ukraine’s grains is imperative for not only domestic economic stability, but also worldwide famine relief.
“It’s quite an interesting position… on the one hand you possess this great resource. But on the other hand, it puts you at the center of a lot of mass violence,” says Luliia Skubytska, an associate research scholar in the program of Judaic Studies at Princeton University.
Ukraine’s crops account for 30% of the world’s supply of sunflower oil and 4% of the world’s wheat. Some countries are even more dependent, like Libya, where 44% of their wheat originates from Ukraine. Such dependence has been the source of conflict in not just Russia-Ukraine, but historically, in World War I and World War II, according to Skubytska. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 made wheat prices soar globally, and the same thing happened again when Russia withdrew from the grain initiative in July 2023.
Although many celebrated its creation, some Ukrainians were more critical of the grain deal, believing it to be a “very colonial approach from the West,” explained Prymachenko. To its critics, the grain deal merely signaled how quickly Western powers could resolve a problem (two days, in this instance) when it directly affected their own economic interests. In the Ukrainian perspective, people wonder, “Why couldn’t the war end in two days?” said Prymachenko.
A new kind of war, a trade war
Although the grain deal did benefit Putin in that it allowed Russia to export agricultural goods despite Western sanctions, it was probably not his sole motive for the deal, according to Prymachenko. Turkey served as the orchestrator and moderator between Ukraine and Russia on this grain deal. During this time, there also happened to be an election underway in Turkey.
Many observers believe that Putin signed this deal to support the presidential campaign of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Once these votes were in, Putin reasoned it was okay to back out of the deal, says Prymachenko. Erdogan is a “convenient partner” for Putin because of his similarly authoritarian politics, Prymachenko explained.
Alternatively, Putin may have initially signed the deal to appease Western powers and avoid burning any bridges, according to Prymachenko. The outcome of the war was “not so obvious” in July 2022, says Prymachenko. Once Putin decided to change his course on the war, he leaned into a trade war. When the West didn’t meet his expectations, he essentially used the grain corridor, or lack thereof, as provoked, and therefore justified, blackmail, says Prymachenko.
Observers point to the arrival of unharmed vessels in Ukraine’s ports as a sign of a positive development in the nation’s counteroffensive, and that Ukraine’s offensive is stronger than previously thought.
However, it might not be that Putin doesn’t want to do anything about these vessels, but rather that he can’t just yet, explained Skubytska. Several artillery bases in Crimea have been destroyed by Ukrainian special forces, effectively wiping out the long-range missiles Russia needs to attack these vessels in the new corridor.
“The question is, how long will it take Russia to replace these things [missiles]?” says Skubytska.
Until Russia has replenished their long-range missiles, restoring their ability to impede the routes of these vessels through the new grain corridor, it may be too early to say whether the corridor is truly a success or not.