The Black Sea grain agreement was an important step to stabilize rapidly rising food prices around the world following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and to counter the risk of famine. However, the effects of Russia’s withdrawal on July 17, 2023, from the grain agreement, which provided a safe channel for the export of Ukrainian agricultural products through the Black Sea, have begun to be felt in many parts of the world.
Russia’s announcement that it is pulling out of the grain deal comes as no surprise. Russia had previously announced its withdrawal from the agreement, only to rejoin it through the intervention of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Moscow has criticized the current agreement for threatening Russian interests, saying it is inequitable and unfair and in its current form serves developed countries rather than developing countries that struggle to access food. Contrary to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims, the agreement, which was signed at the initiative of the United Nations and Türkiye while the Russian-Ukrainian war was in full swing, helped keep food prices relatively low.
Any disruption in the grain agreement, which is an important diplomatic success of the Russia-Ukraine war that has caused global food prices to skyrocket, will cause serious disruptions in the African continent, which is reeling from the climate crisis. African countries are struggling with economic shock waves caused by high inflation and have important trade relations with Russia and Ukraine for the supply of grain products such as wheat, corn, and sunflower oil. Therefore, for the African continent, the end of the grain agreement would threaten access to food resources and increase food import costs. Russia has been expanding its sphere of influence on the African continent through diplomacy, investment and Wagner Group paramilitary troops, and its use of food as a tool against Ukraine will have far-reaching implications and affect its relations with African countries.
Moscow used food as a weapon against West
In fact, on June 17, a delegation of African heads of state visited Russia and stated that the grain agreement was vital for access to food and therefore demanded the continuation of the agreement. However, Putin’s announcement that he was withdrawing from the agreement, using food as a weapon against Western sanctions, showed that the demands of African leaders were not reciprocated by Moscow. In fact, among the reasons for withdrawing from the agreement, Putin had stated that the grain supply to countries, including Africa, which have difficulties in accessing food under the agreement had not been realized. Moscow’s ambivalence toward the grain deal will be a test of its sincerity in its relations with African countries, as it shows how far it can go in manipulating the welfare of its partners.
Putin’s withdrawal from the grain deal was one of the highlights of the second Russia-Africa Summit held in St. Petersburg, Russia on July 27-28. At the Russia-Africa Summit in 2019, which was not attended by a significant majority of African leaders, Putin targeted the West for the disruptions in the global food supply. In this context, the Russian President, who stated that he was on the side of the continent countries against the disruptions that would arise from the cancellation of the grain agreement, went one step further and promised to provide Ukrainian grain to the continent countries free of charge or on a commercial basis. Considering the existence of repressive and authoritarian regimes in the continent that want to maintain their power through foreign aid, it is possible to say that Putin’s promises regarding the supply of grain will find buyers in the continent.
The Russian leader’s statements showed that he was worried that his withdrawal from the grain deal would negatively affect his relations with the countries of the continent at a time of increasing competition and geopolitical struggle with the West. Considering that Putin’s grain supply pledges include Burkino Faso, Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic, Eritrea and Zimbabwe, where he already has an established presence, it is clear that the Russian leader’s promises have strategic objectives.
Deal cancellation will cause famine in East Africa
East Africa, the region where the negative impacts of climate change are felt the most, will face the risk of food insecurity if Russia withdraws from the agreement. East African countries, which source 80% of their wheat needs from Russia and Ukraine, will face significant disruptions in the supply chain if Russia withdraws from the agreement. This would exacerbate supply chain problems in East African countries that rely on Ukrainian grain exports, leading to crop shortages and higher food prices.
The signing of the grain deal has allowed Somalia, an East African country plagued by food insecurity caused by drought and excessive rainfall, as well as the threat of terrorism, to access hundreds of thousands of tons of food at a time of increased food needs and funding cuts. However, if Russia does not return to the agreement after its withdrawal, any disruption in food deliveries will lead to displacement in Somalia, which is struggling with hunger, and refugee crises across the region. Failure to deliver aid to areas under the control of the al-Shabab terrorist organization in Somalia will increase pressure on the humanitarian system.
While the Russia-Ukraine war has disrupted access to food globally, it has had a much more dramatic impact in Somalia, which is struggling with hunger and drought as Western humanitarian organizations have focused their attention on Ukraine. Somalia voted against Russia in the February United Nations vote to end the war in Ukraine. Nevertheless, recognizing Somalia’s vulnerability in terms of predictability and stability in access to food, the Russian leader included Somalia among the countries to which he pledged grain supplies at the Russia-Africa Summit.
As a result, it is important to maintain the agreement to prevent Russia from pursuing policies that will make African countries dependent on it in the long run through access to food.
*Ph.D. holder in peacebuilding from Istanbul University