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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 presents itself as an innocent party in the Black Sea naval blockade that is fueling a global food crisis.
For 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 vast shipments of grain from the Black Sea.
In the latest episode of propaganda theatrics, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Ankara on Wednesday for talks on opening shipping corridors, but Ukrainians specifically noted that they – the actual owners of the ports – were not invited, so there could be none any shop in Turkey without them.
Lavrov used the trip to Ankara to make the false claim: “The Russian Federation does not create an obstacle to the passage of ships or ships … We do not prevent anything.”
This is now becoming a hallmark of Moscow’s international news service. In the Russian version, Ukraine is responsible for the blockade because it mined the port of Odessa and – also wrongly – Western sanctions stop the flow of grain. The fact that the whole crisis stemmed from a Russian invasion and naval blockade is conveniently ignored.
Politically, the Kremlin has identified this as an ideal moment to try to undermine the basis for sanctions, saying it is ready to resume supporting the flow of grain from Ukraine’s port of Odessa as long as sanctions on Moscow are lifted.
“They don’t actually negotiate; They continue their anti-Western narrative,” Ukraine’s Deputy Economy Minister Taras Kachka told POLITICO in an interview on the food crisis. But it’s different.”
Amid Lavrov’s gaslighting of Ukraine, he failed to mention that the Russian military has destroyed the port city of Mariupol and since February has blocked Ukraine’s main export routes from Odessa and Mykolaiv, with at least 23 million tons of grain and oilseeds trapped in the country. That’s almost five months’ worth of regular exports.
This sea cordon has pushed up world food prices, leaving many developing countries dependent on obtaining Ukrainian grains (such as ChadEgypt, Somalia and Lebanon) are ringing alarm bells about supplies and rising prices.
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Worryingly for the West, the Russian argument is gaining traction. European leaders last week expressed fears that Russia’s version of events would have a particular appeal in Africa. Macky Sall, the Senegalese President and Chair of the African Union, echoed Russia’s disagreements, particularly over Western sanctions, following last week’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
But Sall must consider his own strategic priorities. Senegal comes over half its imported wheat from Russia, while other African nations like Rwanda, Congo and Eritrea are just as, if not more, dependent on Moscow, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, who shared the podium with Lavrov, also appeared to believe Russia’s push for economic relief in exchange for a grain corridor. He said it was “legitimate” for Russia to seek a reduction in Western sanctions in exchange for agreeing to such a grain corridor.
The talks in Ankara come amid attempts by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to negotiate an international agreement to create a protected Black Sea shipping corridor. Under a deal, commercial grain ships, accompanied by military ships from a neutral country, perhaps Turkey, could travel safely to and from Ukrainian ports.
After downplaying Russia’s role in the food crisis, Lavrov blamed Kyiv alone for the food blockade, saying that the main obstacle to free trade was the defensive sea mines that Ukraine had laid around Odessa. “If Ukraine is ready to start demining, then so are we,” Lavrov said, adding: “The ball is now in their side.”
But Ukrainian minister Kachka said: “The core problem is the Russian military ships and the danger they pose to trade, commerce and the transport of goods. Mines are absolute [a] subtopic.”
Ukraine also insists the mines are vital to halting a Russian attack on Odessa. “Putin says he will not use trade routes to attack Odessa. This is the same Putin who told Chancellor Scholz and French President Macron he would not attack Ukraine days before he launched a full-scale invasion of our country. We cannot trust Putin, his words are empty,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said this week.
A US official also described Moscow’s proposal to swap a grain corridor for sanctions relief as “blackmail diplomacy.” Neither EU nor US officials have signaled a willingness to ease economic pressure on the Kremlin.
“How do sanctions against Russia prevent Ukraine from transporting cargo?” asked Volodymyr Dubovyk, associate professor of international relations at the Odessa National University II Mechnikov. “There is no connection here. Only the presence of the Russian Navy there is the only thing that prevents Ukrainian food from being brought to different markets,” he said.
Russian diplomats around the world are stepping up attempts to scapegoat Ukraine for the food crisis.
Moscow’s ambassador to the United Nations stormed out of a Security Council meeting on Monday after European Council President Charles Michel accused him of falsely blaming Western sanctions for worsening the global food crisis.
“This could well be a big PR game from Moscow,” said Timothy Ash, an economist at BlueBay Asset Management. “By pretending to negotiate with Turkey and be seen as reasonable, it can blame Ukraine for a no deal and then the global food price crisis,” he wrote in an email.
Kachka said Moscow was engaged in “communication manipulation”.
Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio added to the chorus of Western politicians that Putin is increasingly using grain as a diplomatic tool. “Blocking grain exports means you sentence millions of children, women and men to death far from the conflict,” he said said at a conference in Rome on Wednesday.
Finding a route out of Ukraine that can handle the required volumes is all the more urgent as harvesting of another tens of millions of tons of crops planted last winter is imminent.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on Wednesday that harvesting and storing the new crop are among the biggest challenges farmers are facing after planting 75 percent of the arable land against all odds in spring last year.
In November, when the next corn harvest arrives, Ukraine could face storage shortages of up to 15 million tons, and the grain will deteriorate in quality if it cannot be shipped on time.
“Dozens of farmers have been killed by mines in the fields, so this is really a bloody season in our agriculture,” Kachka said.
Meanwhile, the EU is pushing ahead with triangulating logistical efforts to boost grain and sunflower oil exports by rail to Poland and Romania.
Senior European Commission official Michael Niejahr said at a behind-closed-doors meeting of EU diplomats on Tuesday that the EU was focusing its efforts on bringing more Ukrainian grain to Poland’s Baltic port of Gdansk and Romania’s Black Sea port of Constanta . according to two diplomats and an official gift.
Kachka described this as “extremely helpful” because even if a sea corridor were to be agreed one day, “the need to export across the land border remains”.
Andrey Sizov, head of Black Sea grain trading consultancy SovEcon, said: “There is nothing that can be done to improve this quickly.”
Russia is expected to become the world’s largest wheat exporter next season with a bumper harvest, he said, but world hunger could be far worse if Moscow cuts its own grain exports for political reasons.
“The worst case scenario is a blocked Ukrainian [grain] terminals and additional restrictions on Russian exports imposed by Russia itself,” he said, adding that this could double world wheat prices.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu offered to host a meeting between the UN, Russia and Ukraine to agree on the terms of the UN-run sea corridor, describing it as a “reasonable” and “workable” proposal.
But Kachka said serious discussions about a food corridor are still taking place and that for now there are only “frantic attempts to find a solution” as the world awakens to the deepening food insecurity crisis. “When this phase is over, I think that discussions about sending military ships to Ukraine will be more visible and concrete,” he said.
“We are very close to these talks because there is no other way.”
David M. Herszenhorn and Meredith Lee contributed reporting.