Russia’s exit from the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) and the heightened tensions that have since affected the region have endangered the viability of agricultural exports from Ukraine’s maritime ports and are thus threatening to exacerbate food insecurity across the globe.
The importance of Ukrainian agricultural exports for global economic stability was made clear in the early months of the war, when the interruption of Ukraine’s Black Sea exports by Russia’s naval blockade decisively contributed to food supply chain disruptions, price inflation and increased food scarcity around the world. Then, in July of 2022, the creation of the BSGI by the UN, Ukraine, Türkiye and Russia allowed for the safe resumption of Ukrainian maritime exports through the Black Sea grain corridor, with the resulting flow of Ukrainian agricultural goods to global markets playing a key role in increasing global food availability, stabilizing prices and, in such a way, addressing global food insecurity. From its creation in 2022 to July of 2023—when Russia’s exit put a halt to the operation of the BSGI—the initiative oversaw the export of nearly 33 million tons of Ukrainian food to 45 countries across Asia, Africa and Europe, with 57 percent of overall exports and 65 percent of wheat exports going to developing countries. Additionally, the BSGI was vital in the field of humanitarian action, by enabling the World Food Program to acquire 725 thousand tons of Ukrainian wheat for distribution to vulnerable populations across the world, and also by providing a general context for Grain from Ukraine, a humanitarian initiative by which Kyiv and its international partners supplied tens of thousands of tons of grains to Ethiopia, Yemen, Somalia and Kenya.
But all of that is now put in jeopardy. Even though there’s still the possibility of Russia’s return to the BSGI, the fact is that the chances of that actually happening seem to be made vague by Moscow’s palpable disinterest for the initiative, by the devastation it’s been inflicting on Ukrainian ports and infrastructures, and by the ultimatum it’s put forth to commercial shippers—when it stated that all Ukraine-bound vessels would be considered as potential carriers of military supplies on behalf of Kyiv and, therefore, as potential military targets. All this destabilized the markets and generated the prospect of a lasting state of tension in the Black Sea, and of a subsequent impossibility of exporting agricultural goods from Ukraine’s maritime ports. That would of course tend to suffocate Ukraine’s economy even further and to make Ukraine more vulnerable to Russia. And, furthermore, it would worsen the cost of living crisis across the world and particularly in the developing economies of the Global South—which already have, over the past year and a half, been afflicted by the global economic impacts of the war in Ukraine.
That’s how Korir Sing’Oei of the Kenyan government described Russia’s exit from the BSGI as a stab in the back, while India, South Africa and the Gulf Cooperation Council called for the restoration of the initiative, and China urged the stabilization of affairs in the Black Sea region. In his stead, African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat said to Russian President Vladimir Putin that supply disruptions must end immediately, and that “the grain deal must be extended for the benefit of all the peoples of the world, Africans in particular.” This naturally includes the millions of Africans who depend upon food assistance provided by means of the distribution of Ukrainian food, and who therefore need the Black Sea corridor’s survival.
Russia abandoned the BSGI based on the allegation that Russian agricultural exports were still being targeted by restrictions at levels such as finance, insurance and logistics. This even though there are no direct sanctions on those exports, and despite the fact that—as pointed out by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to Putin—great efforts were taken, and solutions created, to remove remaining obstacles to those same exports, as reflected in the progressive normalization of trading conditions for Russian agricultural goods from July of 2022 onward. It should also be noted that Russian grain exports for marketing season 2022/23 hit the record volume of 57 million tons, and that, as mentioned by Guterres, Russian fertilizer exports have been recovering—with the former and the latter enabling Russia to profit from the high prices of agricultural goods.
Even so, Russia has remained intransigent. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, explained that Russia will be the key beneficiary of blocking the BSGI, since it will have the opportunity to take advantage of higher food prices even while severely limiting its main competitor Ukraine’s capacity to export. Borrell also stated that Russia “is now approaching vulnerable countries with bilateral offers of grain shipments at discounted prices”, and that it is thus attempting “to create new dependencies by exacerbating economic vulnerabilities and global food insecurity.” In its turn, the Economist Intelligence Unit mentioned that, even if Russia were to re-enter the BSGI in the near-term, it would still most likely exit the initiative permanently around the end of 2023, since it’s been boosting its agricultural production capacity and intends to consolidate its market position at the cost of Ukraine.
What are Ukraine’s options now? For one, it can carry on expanding its rail, road and inland waterway exports to the European Union’s economic space, as it’s been doing since the early days of the war with assistance by Brussels and by neighboring states. Nonetheless, and for the time being, this option is still limited by logistical difficulties, besides the fact that it’s more expensive than Black Sea exports. So, and as was noted by Ukrainian agricultural minister Mykola Solskyi, “Ukrainian exports will be badly affected” without maritime shipping, which is “the most efficient way to ship grain from Ukraine.” (And then there’s also the point that, for Ukraine, not giving up normal economic activity in its maritime ports is also a matter of not acquiescing to Russia’s intended domination over the Ukrainian Black Sea.)
The ideal option would therefore be a firm effort to restore agricultural exports from Ukraine’s maritime ports, on par with a push to optimize and expand land and inland waterway exports. Kyiv is already working on the latter with Brussels and with a number of partner countries, while also trying to resume merchant navigation in the Black Sea, even if in the absence of guarantees that Russia will restrain from interfering with merchant ships. However, resuming maritime trade without any sort of security guarantees could expose ships to boarding or to attack, or even to seizure for an indefinite length of time at the hands of Russia. And besides, the heightened risk could prohibitively raise prices for maritime insurance and discourage most shipping companies from participating.
So the fact is that, in the lack of Russia’s return to the BSGI, the safe operation of the Black Sea corridor can only be ensured by creating conditions by which Russia would be inexorably dissuaded from interfering with merchant shipping. Thus, some have suggested that NATO should provide naval escorts to commercial vessels. Yet, such a scenario would most likely escalate tensions and dramatically increase the potential for an international crisis in the thermonuclear age.
A potentially more effective way of ensuring the Black Sea corridor’s safety would consist of actively engaging, in the operation and supervision of that corridor, a number of states whom Moscow would not want to offend or insult, and who would, furthermore, have a vested interest in the success of Ukrainian exports. Such states would have to want the unimpeded flow of Ukrainian agricultural exports and the stable functioning of the global food market, and they should preferably be considerable in number, since numbers count. Additionally, those states would have to be actors that Russia sees as partners or even as allies, and that it would not dare affront, at least in public. Attacking the corridor would be tantamount to affronting those states, meaning it is something that Moscow would not want to do.
Türkiye already largely matches such criteria, with its close relations with Russia on the one hand and, on the other, its proven commitment to the Black Sea corridor and to safeguarding Ukrainian exports—key that they are to Türkiye itself and to the rest of the Global South. Nonetheless, Türkiye may not be sufficient, since the Ankara-Moscow interaction has been marred by mutual tensions—over the last decade and down to the present day. But the fact is that there are, on par with Türkiye, many other states who meet the necessary requirements. It’s just a matter of looking at the rest of the Global South: to the multiple African, Asian and Latin American countries who have been hurt by the global economic impacts of the war and by the disruptions in Ukrainian exports, and to whom, additionally, Russia wants to please. It is after all in those regions of the world that an ever more isolated Russia finds most of its remaining allies and trade partners and, for all practical effects, most of the countries which still make themselves available for cordial relations with Moscow. So, Russia depends on the Global South—with which it’s actually been trying to strengthen ties since the beginning of the war—, and that means that the Global South enjoys clout and influence with the Kremlin. The exercise of such influence could play a decisive role on behalf of the Black Sea corridor.
Moreover, Global South countries need the secure and unhampered continuity of Ukrainian exports, and it’s in their best interest for Russia to cease blocking those exports at once. These are developing countries, which need the market stability and the regional tranquility that are provided by the steady flow of Ukrainian food to the global market, and also—via World Food Program or Grain from Ukraine shipments—to humanitarian hotspots like Yemen, Afghanistan and parts of the Horn of Africa. Additionally, many countries in the Global South are themselves importers of Ukrainian grains, and that includes Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tunisia and several Gulf states. And some other Global South countries are emerging powers who want to contribute to predictability in international affairs, and so have been trying to play a role on behalf of peace and stability in Ukraine—as is the case with India, China, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Indonesia and, of course, Türkiye itself. Furthermore, the Global South is particularly interested in causes of humanitarian relevance and has been taking a growingly active and assertive role in the world stage.
It is thus probable that several Global South countries would be willing to take part in a peaceful reinvigoration of the Black Sea corridor. This would need to be a coordinated effort, and it could be done by means of the establishment of a new mechanism legitimizing the participation of those countries in the corridor. Such a mechanism would have to be facilitated by the UN General-Secretariat, and it would be signed by Ukraine and by Türkiye and other interested Global South countries—the more the better. The mechanism could be independent from the BSGI and be in place while Russia kept out of the same, or in alternative it could even be integrated in a remade BSGI. In its general lines, the mechanism would: acknowledge the critical importance of Ukrainian food exports and the necessity of safeguarding those; it would reinvigorate the Black Sea corridor; it would emphasize the humanitarian purpose and the peaceful nature of the corridor; and, it would place the supervision and the monitoring of the same under the charge of the signatory states and the UN.
The active participation of the signatory states of the Global South in the corridor’s activities would, in and of itself, tend to play a crucial role in scaring and dissuading Russia from compromising navigation safety and interfering with infrastructures which are essential to globally vital Ukrainian exports. (Furthermore, and on par with their participation in the mechanism, those Global South states could also of course advance such purposes by making use of the diplomatic weight they enjoy with Moscow and Putin himself.)
In exchange for not meddling with the corridor, Russia would receive, under the aegis of the mechanism, guarantees that the same corridor would not be used for ends other than the peaceful and humanitarianly indispensable purpose of enabling the export of Ukrainian grains. Under the BSGI itself, commercial vessels on course to, or from Ukraine, were inspected in the Bosporus Strait by teams of Ukrainian, Turkish, Russian and UN inspectors, to make sure such vessels weren’t carrying unauthorized cargos (e.g. military equipment) and personnel. So, there could be a reinvigoration of such inspections, now by inspectors from the UN and from Ukraine, Türkiye and the other signatory states, with the results of such inspections being made entirely public and formally communicated to Russia. The occurrence of those inspections, and the participation of diplomatically unattackable partner states in the same inspections, would deny Russia pretexts to justify interfering with merchant shipping, and it would be instrumental in protecting the corridor from aggression.
However, navigation safety could also be ensured by naval escorts, which should be provided by Ukraine but could also include vessels from the participating Global South states—in what would further dissuade attacks, since Russia wouldn’t dare attack convoys including naval vessels from the Global South. The armed presence should be minimalistic, so as to emphasize the good will of the participants and the humanitarian purpose of the corridor.
Then, and inasmuch as that wouldn’t represent a risk to the security and the lives of people, it would make sense to provide a genuinely transnational character to the corridor, by means of the active involvement, in that corridor’s day-to-day activity, of observers from the participating countries, as well as of private and civil society organizations from such countries. That could include companies, NGOs and, above all, media, for a daily coverage of events—Global South media have growing international visibility and influence and their presence in the corridor could be an important factor in safeguarding the same.
Such a joint mechanism, based on the resort to peaceful means for the fulfilment of humanitarian purposes would tend to be welcomed by many in the Global South and to have greater chances of success than militarized alternatives. Furthermore, participation in such a mechanism would be a boon for the Global South’s sense of self-efficacy, since it would represent nothing less than the same Global South taking on a central role in the world stage to address the global problem of food insecurity and to protect vulnerable populations all around the planet. It would be a moment of great global respectability for the Global South, and for all the African, Asian and Latin American states who joined such a mechanism.
It can also be noted that Kyiv spent the last months developing contacts and relations with the Global South. So, it’s been organizing joint meetings with the participation of representatives from Global South countries, and it’s been deepening relations with Africa, keeping contact with China, and cultivating ties with India, the Gulf, Southeast Asia and Brazil. These relations could be of great utility for building a consensus in support of the corridor.
With his abandonment of the Black Sea grain deal, Putin managed—whether it was deliberate or not—to get the whole world lamenting the fact and calling for the return of Russia. This of course adds to Moscow’s image and vaguely mends Russia’s ill reputation as an aggressor, just as it advances the narrative of the alleged indispensability of the Kremlin for the stability of the global economy. However, the reality is that there are no reasons for Russia to carry on enjoying such advantages, if only the world decides so.