By withdrawing from a historic agreement that allowed Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea, Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking a gamble that could seriously damage Moscow’s relations with many of its partners who have remained neutral or even favorable to the invasion of its neighbor by the Kremlin.
Russia has also played the role of spoiler at the United Nations, vetoing a resolution on expanding humanitarian aid deliveries through a key border crossing in northwestern Syria and backing a push by Mali’s military junta to expel UN peacekeepers – abrupt moves that reflect Moscow’s desire to raise the stakes elsewhere.
Putin’s stated goal in ending the Black Sea Grain Initiative was to obtain relief from Western sanctions on Russian agricultural exports. His longer-term goal may be to erode Western resolve on Ukraine and win more concessions from the United States and its allies as the war nears 17 months.
The Kremlin doubled down on its efforts to end the grain deal by attacking Ukrainian ports and declaring large areas of the Black Sea unsafe for shipping.
But with the West showing little willingness to give ground, Putin’s actions not only threaten global food security but could also backfire on Russia’s own interests, potentially raising concerns in China, straining Moscow’s relationship with key partner Turkey, and damaging its ties with African countries.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who helped negotiate the grain deal with the UN a year ago, pushed for its extension and said he would negotiate with Putin.
Turkey’s role as a top trading partner and logistical hub for Russia’s foreign trade amid Western sanctions is strengthening Erdogan’s hand and could win him concessions from Putin, whom he calls “my dear friend”.
Turkey’s trade with Russia nearly doubled last year to $68.2 billion, fueling US suspicions that Moscow is using Ankara to circumvent Western sanctions. Turkey says the increase is largely due to rising energy costs.
Their relationship is often described as transactional. Although they are opposites in fighting in Syria, Libya and the decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, they have cooperated in areas such as energy, defense, diplomacy, tourism and trade.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, said the dual nature of the relationship dates back to sultans and tsars.
“Sometimes they compete, sometimes they cooperate. Other times they compete and cooperate at the same time,” he said.
While the pendulum appears to have swung in Ankara’s favor for now, Unluhisarcikli noted that the Kremlin has a few levers to pull, such as canceling a deferral of gas payments or removing financial capital for the Akkuyu nuclear power plant being built by Russia. Moscow could also harm Turkey by restricting Russian tourists, who visit in greater numbers than any other nationality. providing a steady cash flow.
“How much the relationship weakens depends on how Russia reacts to Turkey’s rapprochement with the West,” he said.
Some observers in Moscow believe Russia agreed to extend the grain deal for two months in May to help Erdogan win re-election, but were appalled at his pro-Western turn afterwards.
Erdogan backed Sweden’s NATO membership earlier this month. In another snub to Moscow, Turkey has allowed several Ukrainian commanders who led the defense of Mariupol last year to return home. They surrendered after a two-month Russian siege, then moved to Turkey under an agreement that they would remain there until the end of the war.
Kerim Has, a Moscow-based expert on Turkey-Russia relations, said Erdogan had been emboldened by his re-election to pursue rapprochement with the West, appointing a “pro-Western” cabinet and taking a stance that caused “unease” in the Kremlin.
“It’s a dilemma for Putin,” Has said. “He supported Erdogan’s candidacy, but he will face a more active pro-Western Turkey under Erdogan in the coming period.”
Moscow could try to pressure Erdogan by challenging Turkey’s interests in northwestern Syria, where Ankara has supported armed opposition groups since the start of the conflict. Even though Russia joined Iran in bolstering Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government while Turkey backed its enemies, Moscow and Ankara brokered ceasefire agreements.
But Russia abruptly hardened its stance this month when it vetoed a UN Security Council resolution backed by virtually all members to continue humanitarian aid deliveries to opposition-held areas via the Bab el-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, a vital lifeline for around 4.1 million people in the impoverished enclave. Moscow warned that if its rival project was not accepted, the crossing would be closed.
The presence of 3.4 million Syrians in Turkey is a sensitive subject for Ankara. Erdogan has advocated their voluntary repatriation to parts of northern Syria under Turkish control.
Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Russia’s hardline approach to the issue was an attempt to put pressure on Ankara.
“Turkey will be directly affected by this if the mechanism ends,” he said.
Others were skeptical of Russia’s ability to use the border crossing issue to bolster Ankara. “I don’t think Russia is in a position to increase its pressure on Turkey in Syria,” Has said.
Joseph Daher, a Swiss-Syrian researcher and professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, observed that Russia may try to pressure the West by raising the prospect of a new wave of refugees in Europe.
Richard Gowan, director of the International Crisis Group at the UN, noted that in addition to the tougher stance on Syria, Russia’s “disruptive” actions included backing Mali’s efforts to expel UN peacekeepers.
“It looks like Russia is looking for ways to annoy the West through the UN,” he told The Associated Press.
Reflecting Moscow’s increasingly tough stance, Russian military pilots have recently harassed US planes over Syria in incidents that have heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington. The Pentagon has described Russia’s maneuvers as unprofessional and dangerous, while Moscow has sought to turn the tide by accusing the United States of violating deconfliction rules meant to prevent collisions over Syria.
Amid the upheaval at the UN and in Syria, Russia has wooed African nations with pledges of support.
The Kremlin has stressed it is ready to provide poor African countries with free grain after the termination of the Black Sea deal, and Putin is expected to woo African leaders at a summit in St Petersburg later this month. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow’s offer of free grain shipments would be on the agenda.
The Black Sea Agreement enabled Ukraine to ship 32.9 million metric tons of grain and other foodstuffs to world markets. According to official data, 57% of Ukrainian grain went to developing countries, while China received the most – almost a quarter.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy noted that 60,000 metric tons of grain destroyed by the Russian strike on the port of Odessa on Wednesday was destined for China.
Putin, in turn, accused the West of using the grain deal to “shamelessly enrich itself” instead of its stated goal of alleviating hunger. Despite such rhetoric, the Russian decision will not play well in African countries.
Even as the Kremlin tried to contain the damage to those links, it unleashed new attacks on Odessa and other ports to thwart Ukrainian attempts to continue grain shipments. Moscow called them “retaliatory strikes” for Monday’s attack that damaged the Kerch Bridge linking Moscow’s annexed Crimea to Russia.
Hardliners in Moscow praised Putin for cutting off the deal, which they criticized as a reflection of what they described as the Kremlin’s vain hope of compromising with the West.
Pro-Kremlin commentator Sergei Markov welcomed the retaliatory strikes and argued that the withdrawal from the deal was long overdue.
“The extension of the grain deal caused government ratings to drop and fueled talk of betrayal,” he said.
Andrew Wilks in Istanbul, Turkey, Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut, Lebanon and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.
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