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NIAS Europe Studies
Will Russia's latest attack on the Odessa port, undermine the grain deal with Ukraine?

  Padmashree Anandhan

Russia signing of the grain deal is a strategic move to carry out sanctions free grain exports while keeping a check on Ukraine’s ports and setting a benchmark for future deals

What was Russia-Ukraine grain deal?
On 22 July, representatives from Ukraine, Russia, Turkiye, and the UN met to mediate a deal to remove the Russian blockade from Ukraine’s ports. All the actors in the deal agreed to sign upon the setting up of the Joint Coordination Centre (JCC) in Istanbul, which will overlook the vessels that will enter Ukraine’s ports to keep a check on cargoes, personnel, and possible attacks. The key aspects of the deal are, first, it will allow the exporting of grains, foodstuff, fertilizers, and ammonia through three Black Sea ports, Odesa, Chernomorsk, and Yuzhny.  Second, it mandates registration of every vehicle that will pass through the humanitarian maritime corridor and shall be inspected by Turkiye authorities to check the cargoes and personnel entering and exiting Ukraine. Third, the vessels passing through the corridor will be monitored by all parties to the agreement and will be subject to direct inspection if any suspicious activity is traced. Fourth, the signed deal is applicable for 120 days and will be extended for the same period unless one of the parties calls for termination or modification.

Why did Moscow and Kyiv agree to the deal?
The reason behind Russia and Ukraine accepting the deal varies at different levels. On the domestic, Ukraine is the top producer of grain, cooking oil, fertilizers, wheat, corn, and sunflower oil, the deal will help reduce the economic damage, prevent the threat of running out of storage facilities for grains and restart the exports. From the perspective of war, Ukraine wanted a security guarantee to carry out its exports without disruption and interventions from Russia. With the deal provided Ukraine’s export a safe path through the maritime corridor and monitored the movement of the ships, meaning an equal hand for Ukraine to sign the deal.

For Russia, withdrawing its blockade from Ukraine’s key Black Sea ports might be a step back on the war front. In terms of economy, the deal matters more to Russia. With sanctions from the west blocking its wheat and sunflower oil exports, Russia sees this as an opportunity to use the mirror agreement which was scheduled to be signed after the grain deal to export its goods free of sanctions. The Russian economy is already struggling with excess oil and grains, the deal could be a start to striking future deals to ease its economic loss. 

In terms of the deal, Russia is in a better position than Ukraine. After the sinking of the Moskva ship, Russia’s limitation in the navy was revealed, but it recouped and was successful in causing disruption to Ukraine’s maritime traffic to scare away the shipping firms. Therefore, if the mirror deal is not signed or Russia’s demands on exporting its grains sanction free not met, then the possible next step would be to interrupt Ukraine’s maritime route again. On the other hand, since Turkiye is the overseeing inspector and is a close ally, Russia will be able to keep a close check on the goods that enter or exit and prevent the supply of weapons through waterways to Ukraine. 

Another important factor for Russia is its international reputation, apart from close partnering countries like China, India, and a few countries in Europe, and Africa all have shunned their economic trade and relations due to the war and pressure from the US. To keep up its international image and economy, it requires international links. Therefore, to showcase that its issue lies only with Ukraine and not the rest of the world which is facing the food crisis, Russia opted to green signal the deal.

Why was the grain deal important for the rest of the world?
Ukraine has nine ports that form part of the north-western Black Sea and Sea of Azov. Amongst the nine ports, Chornomorsk, Odesa, and Pivdennyi contribute the highest per cent of grain exports. Major importers of Ukraine’s grain are east African countries, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, and the Middle-East country, Yemen. These countries are not only dependent on Ukraine’s grain exports but also face economic downturns and acute hunger. With Russia launching the war and forcing Ukraine’s maritime trade to close down, has pushed others to face the price hike and increased food shortages. Although certain remote ports in Bosporus Straits have continued to operate, it has not been sufficient. At the regional level, Ukraine is considered the “breadbasket” for Europe and with Russia blocking the port entrances, Europe attempted to re-route the grain export through the Danube Delta of Romania, or through road or train from Moldova and Lithuania. Since the attempts failed due to challenges in scraping the way for ships, issues in train gauges and logistics, Ukraine transiting its grains is more crucial than ever for the regional and international. Challenges still exist, as shipping companies might fear engaging due to high risk in freight and insurance, but through the deal, the accumulated grains can be unloaded from silos and exported using the agreed humanitarian maritime corridor.

Will the missile attack on ports torpedo the deal?
According to the deal, no foreign personnel can be in the Ukraine port, only the monitoring of ship movement and inspection of cargoes in the ship is open for all parties to the deal. In terms of missile attacks, Russia is barred from launching any attacks on the port facility, ships and civilian vessels that enter and exit between Ukraine and JCC. As per the agreed conditions of the deal, the signatories are banned from attacking the ports, ships, civilian vessels engaged in the grain exporting. Therefore, Russia’s recent attack on Odesa port does break the deal, regardless of the target being a military infrastructure or a silo.

On the probability of such attacks, one, Russia would consider its economy and its international equation before launching, but for short-term gains, such as signing similar deals to withdraw its forces from other ports or important industrial cities. Two, to maintain its sphere of influence, it can carry out missile attacks to take down Ukraine’s military that stand guard of the ports. 

About the Author

Padmashree Anandhan is a Research Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. She is currently working on the commentary on the UN ocean conference: Global initiatives towards sequestering blue carbon.

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