No Signs of Progress in Talks on Reviving Black Sea Grain Deal

Putin and Erdogan
Courtesy Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Published Sep 5, 2023 7:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

Initial negotiations between Turkey and Russia over the possibility of rebooting a safe-passage agreement for Ukrainian grain have not yielded results just yet - and the continued Russian bombardment of Ukrainian grain ports suggests that the talks ahead may be challenging.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Sochi on Monday to discuss bilateral trade and regional issues. Turkey has deep trade ties to Russia, with volume reaching nearly $70 billion last year, and it hopes to increase that amount by another 50 percent. Turkey is heavily reliant on Russian natural gas, and Russian state power company Rosatom is also assisting Turkey with construction of its first nuclear power station, which will provide about 10 percent of the nation's electricity.  

The grain deal - which Erdogan brokered and Putin abandoned in July - was also high on the agenda. The Turkish government was optimistic that it could convince Russia to return to the deal, but so far Putin has shown no sign of budging. The Kremlin is demanding relaxation of Western banking sanctions, which it claims are impeding export sales of Russian agricultural products. Any claimed impediments have not stopped Russian wheat exports, which have been hitting monthly records and are on track for an all-time annual high for the 2023-4 season. 

“My gut feeling is that Putin recognizes the leverage he has by using food as an economic weapon and thus will fight for all he can get in terms of concessions on his wish list,” said food security researcher Tim Benton of Chatham House, speaking to Al Jazeera.

Erdogan said that Turkey has proposed a new package of proposals for a revised Black Sea grain deal, and that these would be discussed with diplomatic partners. However, Ukraine has already responded that it does not plan to change its position, and the U.S. and EU have shown no sign of interest in lifting sanctions on Russia's banking sector. 

According to German outlet Bild, Turkey and Qatar are in talks with Russia to arrange a separate agreement that would convey Russian grain to Africa, without Ukrainian involvement. Putin said during a press conference Monday that any such agreement would not be an alternative to the Black Sea grain deal, though the Kremlin has previously promised to offset any impact from the suspension of the deal by providing donated or discount food to affected African nations. Ukraine's grain has historically had a strong market share in the developing world, particularly in the Mideast and Africa. 

Over the weekend, just days before the meeting, Russian forces bombarded Ukrainian grain terminals on the Danube again with drones and missiles. Two individuals were injured and had to be hospitalized, according to local reports.  

One drone went over the border and crashed in neighboring Romania, a NATO member state, according to open-source intelligence analysts and Ukrainian government accounts. The Romanian defense ministry responded in a statement that the Russian drone attacks "did not pose any direct military threats against our national territory."

"This is yet another confirmation that Russia's missile terror poses a huge threat not only to Ukraine's security, but also to the security of neighboring countries, including NATO member states," claimed Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko in a statement.