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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Overselling The Russia-Ukraine Grain Deal Is One More Putin Scam

Moscow and Kyiv reached a much hailed accord in July to allow transport of Ukrainian agricultural output from ports along the Black Sea. However, analysis from Germany's Die Welt and Ukraine's Livy Bereg shows that it has done little so far to solve the food crisis, and is instead being used by Putin to advance his own ambitions.

Putin in wheat field

Vladimir Putin inspecting the wheat harvesting at the village of Vyselki, Krasnodar Territory in 2009.

Oleksandr Decyk, Christian Putsch

-Analysis-

Brokered by Turkey on July 22, the Grain Deal between Russia and Ukraine ensured the export of Ukrainian agricultural products from the country's largest sea ports. Exports by sea of grains and oilseeds have been increasing. Optimistic reports, featuring photos of the first deliveries to Africa, are circulating about how the risk of a global food crisis has been averted.

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But a closer look shows a different story. The Black Sea ports are not fully opened, which will impact not only Ukraine. The rest of the world can expect knock-on effects, including potentially hunger for millions. Indeed, a large proportion of the deliveries are not going to Africa at all.

As with other reported "breakthroughs" in the war, Vladimir Putin has other objectives in mind — and is still holding on to all his cards.


First it's important to gauge how the purported deal has played out so far.

Kyiv daily Livy Bereg reports that exports in July amounted to almost three million tons of grain, with figures rising thanks to the Danube ports and exports by rail. And in the first two weeks of August, Ukraine had already exported almost two million tons of grain and processed products, in particular through Black Sea ports.

The storage problem

Since the beginning of August, Ukraine's top exports were corn (776,000 tons) and wheat (339,000). This is a third of last year's figures.

For comparison, before the war, Ukraine exported an average of five to six million tons of grain every month, mainly through the Black Sea ports.

Due to the blockade in the first three months of the war, exports were reduced to one-third of the previous year's level. According to Taras Vysotskyi, First Deputy Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food, Ukraine produces such large volumes of agricultural products that it is impossible to consume them on the domestic market, with 70% of agricultural products destined for export.

In addition to the 2021 harvest, which remains in the country, this year's harvest continues. Despite the fact that farmers were preparing for the sowing of this year in advance, in general, due to the war, they were able to process only 13.5 million hectares, which is equal to 80% of last year's figure.

At the same time, the forecast decrease in this year's harvest still does not solve the problem of storage, with the remaining grain of last year still totaling 15-16 million tons by the end of August.

Complete, unconditional unblocking of ports

Livy Bereg reports that Ukraine must reach the pre-war export levels not only to unload grain storage capacity, but also to increase foreign exchange earnings and reduce the cost of logistics, which currently cuts farmers' earnings by as much as one-third to one-half.

Farmers are forced to sell products at low prices, while the cost of sowing during the war has increased, with the risk that there will be no money left for sowing new crops in spring 2023.

Last year, Ukraine exported six million tons every month and fed 400 million people around the world.

And this is not only the lost income from agricultural exports for Ukraine. Last year, Ukraine exported six million tons every month and fed 400 million people around the world, so a third of them, that is more than 120 million people, will have problems next year.

And only complete and unconditional unblocking of Ukrainian ports can prevent this.

Cargo ship Razoni

The cargo ship Razoni passes through the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey, with 26,000 tons of corn from Ukraine onboard.

Tolga Ildun/ZUMA

Not enough even for Ethiopia alone

The Brave Commander ship carried 23,000 tons of grain, destined for Ethiopia, which is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years — plus several ethnic-based conflicts that are further exacerbating hunger for millions. Battles over the breakaway Tigray region have reignited, while at the same time the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebel group is fighting for greater self-determination.

So the Brave Commander delivery is not much to cheer about. It's just enough to feed 1.5 million people for a month. Ethiopia alone has 120 million inhabitants, more than 20 million of whom are dependent on food aid — and three-quarters of all World Food Program's imports there came from Ukraine and Russia before the war. The situation is even more dramatic in Somalia, where the Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group Al-Shabaab has also regained strength.

In addition, Ukraine understandably does not focus all its efforts on Africa. The United Nations reports that over half a million tons of grain were exported from Ukraine under the Istanbul grain agreement. But about a quarter of the shipments went to Turkey.

There were also several shipments to the European Union, fulfilling existing contracts. A ship even left for Iran, which seems grotesque; after all, Tehran delivered ten combat drones to Russia in mid-August.

Kremlin-Africa calculation

Thus, we can conclude that the grain deal has done little to alleviate the hunger crisis in Africa.

For Putin, this is at least partly a perfidious calculation, argues Robert Kappel, professor emeritus at the Institute for African Studies at the University of Leipzig.

He explains that the conspicuously Kremlin-friendly reaction of many African states to Russia's war of annihilation against Ukraine is also a result of Putin's blackmail. "The motto was: You ask the West to lift the sanctions, and then you will get the necessary supplies of grain, fertilizer and oil," Kappel told Die Welt.

Putin is using Africa to expand his geostrategic interests.

While this strategy has not been successful, he said, the leverage remains. The compromise of the Istanbul deal, he said, suggests that grain is once again coming to Africa.

But that, Kappel stresses, is nowhere near enough to deliver the quantities needed. "African countries remain Russia's plaything," the analyst said.

"Putin is using Africa to expand his geostrategic interests."

Much of Africa's food needs are met by grain. As is well known, the price for this had risen by two-thirds at the beginning of the Ukraine war. The rate has since fallen again, but is still around 20% above the pre-war level.

Putin is trying to use hunger crises in Africa and the Middle East to trigger refugee movements in order to destabilize Europe, warned the former German ambassador to Russia, Rüdiger von Fritsch, in Germany's Tagesspiegel newspaper in May.

Meanwhile, Kappel hopes that the developments of the past few months will be a wake-up call for Africa. Instead of trusting Russia, the continent must finally focus on strengthening its own agriculture. "Putin is not interested in the development of the continent," he said. "There is no altruistic cooperation with African countries, even if they are in a major crisis."

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