The world should not allow Vladimir Putin to abandon the hate treaty
RBELEAGUERED USSIA the president picked up his pen this week. In the days before the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg on July 27, Vladimir Putin published an article on the Kremlin website to justify why he abandoned the grain deal that ensured a safe haven for crops and fertilizers of Ukraine. Promising to make up the shortfall, he wrote that the “so-called” agreement was only enriching Western businesses, and that it guaranteed exports Free Russian from sanctions. Almost every word was wrong.
For starters, Russian food and fertilizer exports, although shunned by Western industries, are not subject to sanctions. In addition, the arrangement has benefited all countries that import food. Under the agreement, signed in July 2022 and led by Turkey and the UN, Ukraine has exported more than 32m tons of crops. That helped lower prices, which have risen since Russia stepped down on July 18 and then began destroying Ukraine’s grain stocks and ports (see chart).
Mr. Putin’s real reason for canceling the deal was to further damage Ukraine’s economy. Ever since the invasion stopped, Russia’s strategy has been to convince the West that Ukraine cannot win a long war – and that Russia’s enemies had better cut their losses . But, after a mutiny by Wagner’s mercenaries in June and a rout in Russia’s regular army, it became clear that time is also working against Mr Putin. Giving up the hate deal is his attempt to go back. It must fail.
If Ukraine cannot export grain, its economy will suffer. Food accounted for about two-fifths of total exports of $68bn in 2021. Farmers can still send some grain by rail and by ship, via the Danube, although both are expensive. But Mr. Putin has stepped in to attack these other export routes, and EU farmers have accepted that prices in local markets have fallen. If Ukrainian farmers cannot earn enough, they will not be able to replant their fields, ruining the next harvest.
The blow to Ukraine’s economy comes on top of its bad offensive. Mr Putin’s message is that he will take whatever pain it takes to keep fighting – whether it’s on Ukraine, the world or his own people. This application finds an audience in the global south. Some countries sympathize with Russia; more suffer from the war and despise the West for postponing the inevitable.
Ukraine’s supporters need to show Mr Putin’s sensitivity. Imposing an unequal truce on Ukraine, even if possible, would not bring lasting peace. A lack of Western resolve would invite Mr. Putin to attack again after rearming. In the meantime, he would certainly continue to try to harm the Ukrainian economy by disrupting exports.
Instead, the world should pressure Russia to revive the grain deal – starting at the Russia-Africa summit. African leaders are not interested in higher prices and fragile global food markets. They could take advantage of Mr. Putin, and send a hate ship to Ukraine under an African flag. In addition, Turkey has influence on Mr. Putin and the motivation to use it. As a major importer of Ukrainian wheat, it can help solve its inflation problems and earn money by selling some products on it. Turkey is a tool for Russian imports. Its great president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, could gain fame as a mediator.
Western supporters of Ukraine also have a role to play by signaling that if diplomacy fails, they will use force to break the illegal blockade of international waters. The first step would be to supply Ukraine with long-range missiles; offers insurance for other convoys. The last option is to give them a military escort. If Turkey exercises its right to deny warships access to the Black Sea through the Bosporus, some NATO members could provide air cover instead. By leaving the hated deal, Mr Putin may think he has shown he has an advantage. All he showed is that he is running out of options. ■