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Ukraine and its Western allies are struggling to neutralize Russia’s latest offensive — a campaign of brazen lies in which Moscow portrays itself as an innocent party in the Black Sea naval blockade that is stoking a global food crisis.
For the Russians, this is an all-important battle for hearts and minds in Africa and the Middle East, regions of the world where the poorest are likely to be hit hardest by Ukraine’s inability to export its bumper shipments of grain out of the Black Sea.
In the latest episode of propaganda-driven theatrics, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Ankara on Wednesday for talks on opening shipping corridors, but the Ukrainians pointedly observed that they — the actual owners of the ports — were not invited, so there could not be any deal in Turkey without them.
Lavrov used the trip to Ankara to make the false claim: “The Russian Federation is not creating any obstacle for the passage of ships or vessels … We are not preventing anything.”
This is now becoming a hallmark of Moscow’s international messaging. In Russia’s version, Ukraine is responsible for the blockade because it has mined the port of Odesa and — equally incorrectly — Western sanctions are stopping grain flows. The fact that the whole crisis is due to a Russian invasion and naval blockade is conveniently ignored.
Politically, the Kremlin has identified this as a prime moment to try to undermine the basis for sanctions, saying it is willing to help the flow of grains out of the Ukrainian port of Odesa again, as long as the sanctions against Moscow are dropped.
“They are actually not negotiating; they are setting their anti-Western narrative,” Ukraine’s Deputy Economy Minister Taras Kachka told POLITICO in an interview. “With all their announcements now, they try to pretend it’s not Russia but Ukraine, and not Russia but Western sanctions are the reasons for the food security crisis. But it is otherwise.”
Amid Lavrov’s gaslighting of Ukraine, he failed to mention that the Russian military has destroyed the port city of Mariupol and has been blockading Ukraine’s key export routes out of Odesa and Mykolaiv since February, leaving at least 23 million tons of grain and oilseeds trapped in the country. That represents almost five months worth of regular exports.
This naval cordon has ratcheted up world food prices and left numerous developing countries that rely on receiving Ukraine’s grains (such as Chad, Egypt, Somalia and Lebanon) raising alarm bells about supplies and rising prices.
Tales with traction
Worryingly for the West, the Russian argument is gaining some traction. European leaders last week voiced fears that Russia’s version of events was gaining a particular purchase in Africa. Indeed, Macky Sall, the Senegalese president and chairperson of the African Union, echoed Russia’s spin, particularly on Western sanctions, after meeting President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week.
But Sall has his own strategic priorities to consider. Senegal gets over half its imported wheat from Russia, while other African nations like Rwanda, Congo and Eritrea are just as dependent on Moscow, if not more so, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.
Standing next to Lavrov on the podium, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also appeared to buy into Russia’s push for economic relief in return for a grain corridor. He said it would be “legitimate” for Russia to secure reductions in Western sanctions in return for agreeing to such a grain corridor.
The talks in Ankara come amid attempts by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres to broker an international deal to create a protected shipping corridor on the Black Sea. Under an agreement, commercial grain ships would be able to safely travel to and from Ukraine’s ports accompanied by military vessels from a neutral country, perhaps Turkey.
After minimizing Russia’s role in the food crisis, Lavrov placed responsibility for the food blockage solely on Kyiv, saying that the defensive sea mines Ukraine has placed around Odesa were the main impediment to free trade. “If Ukraine is ready to kick off demining activities, then we are ready for that as well,” Lavrov said, adding: “The ball is on their side now.”
But Ukrainian minister Kachka said: “The core problems are the Russian military vessels and the danger they pose to trade, commerce and transportation of goods. Mines is absolutely [a] secondary topic.”
Ukraine is also insistent that the mines are vital to stop a Russian assault on Odesa. “Putin says he will not use trade routes to attack Odesa. This is the same Putin who told German Chancellor Scholz and French President Macron he would not attack Ukraine — days before launching a full-scale invasion of our country. We cannot trust Putin, his words are empty,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said this week.
A U.S. official also described Moscow’s pitch to exchange a grain corridor for sanctions relief as “extortion diplomacy.” Neither EU nor U.S. officials have signaled any willingness to lift economic pressure on the Kremlin.
“How are sanctions on Russia preventing Ukraine from transporting cargo?” asked Volodymyr Dubovyk, associate professor of international relations at Odesa I. I. Mechnikov National University. “There’s no link here. It’s only the presence of the Russian navy there, that’s the only thing that prevents Ukrainian food to be put in various markets,” he said.
Russian diplomats across the globe are stepping up their attempts to scapegoat Ukraine for the food crisis.
Moscow’s ambassador to the U.N. stormed out of a meeting of the Security Council on Monday after European Council President Charles Michel accused him of falsely blaming Western sanctions for the deepening global food crisis.
“This could well just be a big PR game from Moscow,” said Timothy Ash, an economist at BlueBay Asset Management. “By pretending to negotiate with Turkey and to be seen as reasonable it can pin the blame on Ukraine for no deal and then the global food price crisis,” he wrote in an email.
Kachka said Moscow was engaging in “communication manipulation.”
Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio added to a chorus of voices from Western politicians saying Putin is increasingly using grain as diplomatic leverage. “Blocking grain exports means you’re condemning millions of children, women and men far from the conflict to death,” he said at a conference in Rome on Wednesday.
Finding a route out of Ukraine that can handle the volumes needed is all the more urgent because of the impending harvest of tens of millions more tons of crops that were planted last winter.
Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Wednesday that reaping and storing the new harvest are among the major challenges farmers are facing, having planted 75 percent of last year’s spring farmland against all the odds.
Come November, when the next harvest of corn comes in, Ukraine could be facing a storage shortage of up to 15 million tons, and grain deteriorates in quality if it can’t be shipped out on time.
“Dozens of farmers were killed by mines in fields, so this is really a bloody season in our agriculture,” Kachka said.
Meanwhile, the EU is pressing ahead with triangulating logistical efforts to ramp up grain and sunflower oil exports on railways into Poland and Romania.
Senior European Commission official Michael Niejahr told a closed-door meeting of EU diplomats on Tuesday that the EU is focusing its efforts on getting more Ukrainian grain to the Baltic Sea Polish port of Gdańsk and the Romanian port of Constanța, located on the Black Sea, according to two diplomats and one official present.
Kachka described this as “extremely helpful” because even if a sea corridor is one day agreed, “there will still be a necessity to export via the land border.”
Andrey Sizov, head of Black Sea grain trading consultancy SovEcon, said: “Nothing can be done to improve this rapidly.”
Russia looks set to become the world’s largest wheat exporter in the next season with a record harvest, he said, but things could get far worse for world hunger if Moscow restricts its own grain exports for political reasons.
“The worst-case scenario is blocked Ukrainian [grain] terminals and additional restrictions on Russian exports imposed by Russia itself,” he said, adding that this could double global wheat prices.
Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu offered to host a meeting between the U.N., Russia and Ukraine to agree on the terms of the U.N.-driven sea corridor, describing it as a “reasonable” and “feasible” proposal.
But Kachka said serious discussions on a food corridor are yet to take place, and currently there are merely “hectic attempts to find a solution” while the world gets wise to the deepening food insecurity crisis. “When this stage will be over, I think that the discussions about sending military vessels to Ukraine will be more visible and more concrete,” he said.
“We are very close to these discussions because there is no other option.”
David M. Herszenhorn and Meredith Lee contributed reporting.