Moscow chose not to renew the pivotal agreement – brokered by the UN and Turkey in July 2022 – in which it had promised to lift its wartime blockade so Ukrainian grain could safely be exported via the Black Sea.
Russia’s decision has sparked frustration from the international community and has already triggered the global price of wheat to soar.
Speaking on Monday, the UN’s secretary general Antonio Guterres said the move “will strike a blow to people in need everywhere”.
Ukraine is seen as one of the world’s “bread baskets” and through the agreement, it managed to export more than 32 million tonnes of food products to the world market.
Now the deal is off, Russia is “aiming to deter all merchant shipping from Ukrainian ports” with its navy, according to the UK’s ministry of defence (MoD).
Looking into what was behind this seemingly sudden change in strategy, the MoD said: “Russia likely made the decision to leave some time ago, because it decided that the deal was no longer serving its interests.”
Publicly, Moscow has claimed that the UN has not kept to its side of the bargain and helped Russia increase its own exports of grains and fertilisers. The Russian MoD claimed the deal was only “directed to serve the narrow self-interests” of Kyiv and its Western allies.
The Kremlin has suggested that the sanctions imposed by the West have put off shipping companies, international banks and insurers – even though the West hasn’t actually imposed any sanctions on Russia’s agricultural products.
Moscow also wanted its state-owned agricultural bank to be reconnected to the Swift fast payment system after being banned in June 2022. And while the UN offered to set up a subsidiary for Russia, Moscow said that would be too time-consuming and rejected it.
But, the MoD claimed Moscow is publicly blaming a different reason.
“Russia has masked this with disinformation,” the intelligence suggested in its daily update, “claiming its withdrawal is instead due to concerns that civilians ships are at risk from Ukrainian mines and that Ukraine was making military use of the grain corridor without providing evidence for these claims.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has claimed that the refusal to prolong the grain deal had decided before the explosions on the Crimean bridge which it called a “terrorist attack” from Ukraine.
The Russian MoD has announced that it would be assuming all vessels now approaching Ukraine were carrying weapons.
The UK MoD also added that the Russian Black Sea Fleet would probably be more of an active disruptor now to future trade, although they will be “at risk” from Ukrainian uncrewed surface vehicles and coastal defence cruise missiles.
Now the blockade is in place again, there are fears world food prices could return to the high levels seen last year and bring food shortages to some African and Middle Eastern countries.
The deal took food prices down by 20% in July last year, according to the UN.
Ukraine can try to use land borders for its exported goods – for instance, through ports on the Baltic Sea or rail and barge to Romania – but these routes are expected to be much more time-consuming.
Russia has said it will join the deal again if its conditions are met. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he will try to persuade Vladimir Putin to rejoin the agreement when they meet in August.