Putin says there will be no new grain deal until West meets his demands

Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan held talks at Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi (Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan held talks at Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi (Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said a landmark deal that allowed Ukraine to export grain safely through the Black Sea amid the war will not be restored until the West meets Moscow’s demands on its own agricultural exports.

Ukraine and its western allies have dismissed the Kremlin’s demands as a ploy to advance its own interests.

Still, Mr Putin’s remarks dashed hopes that his talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could revive the agreement, seen as vital for global food supplies, especially in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Russia refused to extend the deal in July, complaining that a parallel agreement promising to remove obstacles to Russian exports of food and fertiliser had not been honoured.

It said restrictions on shipping and insurance hampered its agricultural trade, though it has shipped record amounts of wheat since last year.

Mr Putin reiterated those complaints on Monday, while saying that if those commitments were honoured, Russia could return to the deal “within days”.

Mr Erdogan also expressed hope that a breakthrough could come soon. He said Turkey and the UN — which both brokered the original deal — have put together a new package of proposals to unblock the issue.

“I believe that we will reach a solution that will meet the expectations in a short time,” Mr Erdogan told a news conference in the Russian resort of Sochi, where the leaders met.

Earlier, German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock lashed out, saying Mr Putin’s “game with the grain agreement is cynical”.

Mr Erdogan was hoping to persuade Russia to rejoin the Black Sea grain deal that Moscow broke off from in July (AP)

“It’s only because of Putin that the freighters don’t have free passage again,” she told reporters in Berlin.

A lot is riding on the negotiation. Ukraine and Russia are major suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other goods that developing nations rely on.

Data from the Joint Co-ordination Centre in Istanbul, which organised shipments under the deal, show that 57% of the grain from Ukraine went to developing nations, with the top destination being China.

Grain prices shot up after Russia pulled out of the deal but have since fallen back, indicating that there is not a big crunch in the market right now, said Tim Benton, a food security expert at the Chatham House think tank. But the long-term picture is uncertain.

“I am more worried about the future, where the strengthening El Nino (weather phenomenon) might make 2024 the year to watch,” he said.

Erdogan and Putin
The meeting has implications for the world’s food supply (Sputnik via AP)

Ukraine and its allies have often noted that Russia’s move left many developing nations in the lurch, since so many were recipients of the grain.

Perhaps in an effort to address that accusation, Mr Putin said on Monday that Russia was close to finalising an agreement to provide free grain to six African countries. Last month, he promised shipments to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Eritrea and Central African Republic.

The Russian leader added that the country will ship one million metric tons of cheap grain to Turkey for processing and delivery to poor countries.

In addition to pulling out of the grain deal, Russia has repeatedly attacked the Odesa region, where Ukraine’s main Black Sea port is located.

Hours before the Sochi meeting, the Kremlin’s forces launched a second barrage in two days on the area. The Ukrainian air force said it intercepted 23 of 32 drones that targeted the Odesa and Dnipropetrovsk regions.

It did not specify damage caused by those that got through.

Russia is hoping it can use its power over Ukraine’s Black Sea exports as a bargaining chip to reduce western economic sanctions.

Some companies have been wary of doing business with Russia because of those sanctions, even though western allies have made assurances that food and fertiliser are exempt. Still, Moscow remains unsatisfied.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, on Monday urged Moscow to return to the deal, insisting “there were no legal and political grounds for Russia to withdraw from the agreement”.

Monday’s talks took place against a backdrop of Ukraine’s recent counter-offensive against the Kremlin’s invasion forces.

In the latest development, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday that defence minister Oleksii Reznikov would be replaced this week.

The job requires “new approaches”, Mr Zelensky said, without elaborating.

On Monday Mr Reznikov published a photo of his resignation letter.

Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan — authoritarian leaders who have both been in power for more than two decades — are said to have a close rapport, fostered in the wake of a failed coup against Mr Erdogan in 2016 when Mr Putin was the first major leader to offer his support.

The Turkish president has maintained those during the 18-month war in Ukraine. Turkey has not joined western sanctions against Russia following its invasion, emerging as a main trading partner and logistical hub for Russia’s overseas trade.

At the same time, Turkey, a member of Nato, has also supported Ukraine, sending arms, meeting Mr Zelensky and backing Kyiv’s bid to join the Western alliance.

Russia, meanwhile, has taken steps to strengthen its military ties with North Korea.

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, who travelled to Pyongyang last month, said on Monday that the two countries may hold joint war games.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is expected to travel to Russia within the month (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

US National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson noted that Mr Shoigu sought to persuade North Korea during his trip to sell artillery ammunition to Russia.

The US has reason to think North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un “expects these discussions to continue” and “to include leader-level diplomatic engagement in Russia”, Ms Watson said on Monday.

Another US official said the US expects Mr Kim will travel to Russia within the month.

The White House reported last week that it had intelligence indicating that Mr Putin and Mr Kim swapped letters following Mr Shoigu’s visit.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the letters were “more at the surface level” but that Russian and North Korean talks on a weapons sale were advancing.