Millions Face Hunger as Russia Withdraws from Black Sea Grain Deal Again
The UN has warned that millions of people could face hunger if the deal is not saved.

Russia has withdrawn from a UN-brokered agreement that allowed Ukraine to safely export grains from its ports in the Black Sea. The move is expected to have a significant impact on global food prices, imperilling the food security of millions around the world. 

“I deeply regret Russia’s decision to terminate the implementation of the Black Sea Initiative, which has been a lifeline for global food security in a troubled world,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Monday. “Hundreds of millions facing hunger and consumers confronting a global cost-of-living crisis will pay the price.”

The first months of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine saw global food prices surge as Russian naval blockades trapped around 20 million tonnes of grain in Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, triggering the worst global food crisis since 2008

The United Nations warned food-insecure countries in the Middle East and Africa were at risk of famine if the blockades continued, while the International Monetary Fund estimated the lives of 345 million people were put in immediate danger by the shock waves sent across global food markets by the war.

The mounting global food crisis and international pressure led to a rare instance of successful diplomacy between invader and invaded. The Black Sea grain initiative, which came into effect a year ago, created a safe corridor for commercial ships to enter and exit the Black Sea, allowing Ukrainian grain exports to resume.

The deal helped ease the upward pressure on global food prices, with around 33 million metric tons of grain and oilseeds exported under the deal.

Prices for grains and oilseeds have already risen in response to Russia’s exit from the deal. Aid agencies are bracing for further increases.

Consequences for the global food crisis

The 10 countries/territories with the highest numbers of people facing life-threatening levels of food insecurity.

As the last ship protected by the agreement set sail from the port of Odesa on Sunday morning, fears grew that the progress made in stabilising the global food crisis could be lost overnight.

The confluence of COVID-19, the war in Ukraine and climate shocks have overlapped to create the “largest and most complex hunger and humanitarian crisis in more than 70 years”, the World Food Programme said in its annual report last month. 

A record 349 million people experienced acute hunger in 2022, while 772,000 balanced on the knife’s edge of famine. Around 2.4 billion people did not have constant access to food. 

According to the UN, 47% of exports from Ukraine under the deal have gone to high-income countries, 26% to upper-middle-income countries, and 27% to low and lower-middle-income countries. 

Russia has criticized Ukraine for not exporting more to low-income countries. The UN, EU, United States and Ukraine argue the grain deal benefits people around the world due to its deflationary effect on food prices, which are at a 10-year high.

Ukraine was WFP’s top provider of grain in 2021, accounting for 20% of the total purchased by the UN agency. That number rose to 80% in the first half of this year.

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen condemned Russia’s “cynical move” to exit the agreement. The EU is “working to ensure food security for the world’s most vulnerable”, and will continue to help Ukraine deliver its agri-food products to global markets, she said. 

The UN has warned that millions of people could face hunger if the deal is not saved. Countries facing high levels of food insecurity such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria will be the hardest hit. 

“Today’s decision by Russia to terminate the implementation of the Black Sea Initiative will strike a blow to people in need everywhere,” said Guterres.

Will Russia return to the deal?

Russia has pulled out of the Black Sea grain deal before. In November, Russia announced it was leaving the agreement, stoking panic in global food markets. Under pressure from Turkey, it rejoined the deal one day later. 

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that the Black Sea grain deal has been “terminated”, but that Russia would rejoin the agreement “as soon as the relevant agreements are fulfilled”.

Russian demands include lifting obstacles to its own grain and fertilizer exports, reopening an ammonia pipeline from Odesa to Russia, and reconnecting the Russian Agricultural Bank to the SWIFT international payment system.

Moscow has repeatedly criticized the deal as one-sided, providing a lifeline to Ukrainian farmers without benefiting Russia. 

“Absolutely nothing has been done – I want to stress that. It’s one-way traffic,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said of the grain deal last week. “Not a single point linked to the fact Russia has its own interests has been fulfilled.” 

EU and US sanctions do not directly target Russia’s food and agriculture sectors, but have blocked the export of machinery needed for agriculture and complicated Russian efforts to export food and fertilizer.

EU officials said negotiations are still ongoing, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Monday he believes Putin “wants the Black Sea Grain deal to continue”.

The United Nations and European Union have offered to reconnect a subsidiary of Russia’s Agricultural Bank to the SWIFT international payments system if it operates independently and agrees to regular UN audits. 

Russia was made aware of this proposal by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last week, but pressed on with its exit from the deal.

Despite the stalemate, the deal still stands, a senior EU official told the Wall Street Journal on Monday. 

Image Credits: Breta Valek.

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