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Russia’s grain deal withdrawal strains relations with China and Turkey

Russia’s decision to withdraw from a deal allowing Ukrainian grain to be exported globally is a high-stakes gamble by President Vladimir Putin that risks straining diplomatic relations with two of Russia’s influential partners, China and Turkey.

By choking off Ukraine’s massive grain exports, Russia aims to further cripple its adversary’s economy while potentially boosting its own grain export revenue by driving global grain prices higher. However, this move comes at a significant cost, as it puts economic pressure on China, the largest recipient of Ukraine’s grain under the deal, and strains relations with Turkey, another major buyer that played a role in brokering the original agreement between Russia and Ukraine last year.

Putin’s decision to withdraw from the deal is part of a renewed attempt to flex Russia’s diplomatic muscle with both adversaries and partners as the war in Ukraine continues. Aside from exiting the grain deal, Russia has launched a series of missile strikes on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and grain export infrastructure, even threatening attacks on civilian ships in the waterway. These actions have escalated tensions in the region, particularly around the strategically important shipping lanes. Just this week, Russia moved a warship into a shipping corridor in the southern Black Sea, as reported by the British Defense Ministry.

Despite repeated efforts by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to negotiate a return to the pact, Putin has chosen to ignore these requests, according to diplomats and analysts. Erdogan has expressed his intentions to speak with Putin in recent weeks to revive the deal, but as of yet, the phone call has not taken place. Turkish officials are persisting in their efforts to address the issue with Russia through various other channels.

Time is running out to salvage the deal as Ukraine’s grain harvest will soon accumulate in storage, making it challenging to export in a timely manner. The Black Sea Grain Initiative has been one of the few diplomatic breakthroughs during the ongoing war. The deal allowed Ukraine to export over 32 million tons of grain, which helped stabilise global food prices and alleviated concerns about a deepening global hunger crisis resulting from the invasion.

Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal not only impacts Ukraine but also places pressure on other countries, including Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer and a U.S. security partner. Egypt is grappling with record 60% food inflation and a rapidly depreciating currency, making imports significantly more expensive. The country has been heavily reliant on Russian and Ukrainian grains, but with the cancellation of the deal, it is scrambling to secure sources from other nations.

The United Nations, along with the U.S., China, and other nations, have called on Russia to reconsider and rejoin the grain deal. However, Russia insists that Western countries must do more to facilitate Russian food and fertiliser exports under a separate agreement signed with the U.N. last year. Russia has claimed that Western sanctions have hurt its agriculture industry, although this year’s exports are expected to reach record levels. It’s worth noting that Russia briefly pulled out of the deal last year after blaming Ukraine for a drone attack on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea.

The fallout from Russia’s withdrawal affects not only diplomatic relations but also global food security. The situation raises concerns about escalating violence in the Black Sea area, prompting the U.K. Defense Ministry to issue an intelligence update expressing worry about potential increased intensity and scope of violence in the region.

China, Russia’s influential partner, is signaling its desire for the Black Sea Grain Initiative to continue, further highlighting its significance for global food security. Around 25% of the grain flowing through the Black Sea Initiative has been destined for China. Ukraine’s deputy economy minister recently met with a senior Chinese official in Beijing to discuss expanding their grain exports, demonstrating China’s interest in continuing the deal.

Replacing the large amounts of Ukrainian corn that goes to China poses a challenge for Russia. Ukraine typically accounts for more than a quarter of all Chinese corn imports and a significant portion of barley purchases.

Approximately half of Ukraine’s grain, about 29 million metric tons, was exported through the Black Sea corridor during the last harvest season. Russia’s exit from the deal forces Ukraine to seek alternative export routes. However, countries like Poland and Romania, which could serve as alternative destinations, lack the same approvals from China as Kyiv does, making the transition more complex.

The situation remains highly delicate, and the global impact of Russia’s decision is yet to unfold. It puts significant pressure on diplomatic relations and food security in the region and beyond.