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Early on the morning of June 30, the Russian cargo ship Zhibek Zholy left the Ukrainian port of Berdyansk, carrying 7,000 tons of grain.
The voyage was hailed by the local Moscow-appointed head of the occupied Zaporizhzhia region as “the first commercial ship” to leave the Ukrainian port after months of war, taking desperately needed supplies to “friendly countries.”
But many analysts believe the cargo is likely to have been stolen from Ukrainian stores. They warn the fate of the contested grain shipment now threatens to poison fragile talks over a permanent truce in the Black Sea, further denting hopes for peace and deepening the food crisis gripping the world.
“This is a complete farce,” said Nazar Bobitski, the Polish Union of Employers and Entrepreneurs’ representative in Ukraine. “It’s extremely likely that the Russia will say ‘look, we can organize safe corridors for grain,’ but from the Russian-occupied ports — meaning that Ukrainian farmers will have to surrender the grain to the Russian forces in order to get transit.”
Russia’s decision to launch the Zhibek Zholy on its voyage is typically provocative, and could have far-reaching consequences. It is due to dock in Turkey on the evening of July 1, putting the Ankara government in a potentially tricky position, too.
As the war upends global commodity markets, countries in North Africa and the Middle East face supply shortages of wheat they would normally source from Ukraine. All commercial shipments of Ukrainian food products through the Black Sea have been stopped since the invasion began. The U.N. has warned that a hunger emergency could result.
Turkey is setting itself up as an independent broker in talks between Russia and Ukraine aimed at safely reopening the sea lanes. But if Ankara allows the Zhibek Zholy to land its probably expropriated cargo, it will risk being seen in Kyiv as handling Vladimir Putin’s stolen goods.
Ukraine had been looking to Turkey to provide security guarantees for shipping its grain through the Black Sea.
Rather than turn the ship away, though, on Friday Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared to have decided to embrace his potential role in the supply chain.
“We can supply or re-export wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other agricultural products to countries in need,” Erdoğan said at a press conference, according to the TASS Russian news agency. The Turkish president is ready to discuss the export issue during telephone conversations with Putin and Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the agency said, adding that talks could take place any day.
The situation leaves Ukraine in an invidious position.
“Ukrainians have a very difficult balancing act: in this case, they don’t want to look like obstructionist, even when Russia is stealing their grain,” said Asli Aydıntaşbaş, from the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Russia’s entire game is about getting Ukraine to walk away from this grain export mechanism,” she said, “so the Russians can go and say they’re open to negotiations and a reasonable deal, but Ukrainians are not.”
The stakes remain high. As commodity prices rise, driving inflation, Russia is blockading over 20 million tons of grain in Ukraine. Earlier this week, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi had raised hopes that an agreement on reopening the Black Sea shipping lanes was close, saying all that was needed was a final “Yes” from Russia.
Ukrainian officials also signalled that the right security assurances from Turkey or another NATO country could unlock the flow of grain within days. These are calculations that are likely to weigh heavily in Kyiv, along with prospects for longer term peace.
“They don’t want to ruin their relationship with Turkey, which isn’t only about grain exports,” Aydıntaşbaş said. “It’s going to continue to be a very important country for Ukrainians as long as this war continues. There is the understanding that at some point, Ukraine might need negotiations and that Turkey is a likely country to host these talks — for peace or ceasefire or localized ceasefire. It’s clear that Turkey is Russia’s preferred country to talk to, and now Ukrainians cannot afford to upset Erdoğan.”
The West will be uneasy about Turkey accepting such shipments, according to Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. “It may also create difficulties for Turkey’s future role as an impartial facilitator for Ukrainian exports of cereals,” he said.
Sait Akman, director of the G20 Studies Center at the Centre for Multilateral Trade Studies at Turkish Economic Policy Research Institute (TEPAV), said it seemed that Russia was trying to supply Ankara with grain that would “help reduce wheat prices in Turkey, a major item in the rising bread prices.”
But there may also be a price. “Such a move by Russia will be challenged by Ukraine (and the West) which can claim that such shipments torpedo talks in opening a safe zone,” he said. “Such incidents can negatively affect Turkey’s critical role and credibility in securing protection to ensure [a] safe corridor through the Black Sea.”