Smoke and Mirrors – President Putin’s grandstanding on Black Sea Grain Initiative

Smoke and Mirrors – President Putin’s grandstanding on Black Sea Grain Initiative
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Alexei Druzhinin / Kremlin Pool / Sputnik)

When Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened recently to stop the lifesaving Black Sea Grain Initiative because he claimed most of the Ukrainian grain was going to rich Europeans and not poor Africans, he omitted one important detail. His ally, China, is by far the largest recipient of the grain being allowed out of Ukraine’s blockaded ports.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI), a deal brokered by the UN and Turkey between Russia and Ukraine, was launched in August last year to remedy food shortages and the consequent sharp food price spike caused by Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s ports on the Black Sea after it invaded the country on 24 February 2022.

The initiative is working, though it could be doing better. As of last Wednesday, it had delivered 28.4 million tonnes of grain to the world. And the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that overall food prices have dropped by just over 20% and cereal prices by about 18.6% since the war-induced peak in March 2022.

Under the BSGI deal, the UN supervises ships leaving and returning to Ukraine’s ports – mainly Odesa – to ensure they carry nothing but grain and return empty.

But Russia has clearly been a grudging participant. It has agreed so far to several extensions of the deal, the last being in March. But Putin recently threatened to block the next extension, due in May, because Europe was getting most of the grain and Africa very little.

He was, it should be noted, addressing the Africa interparliamentary forum in Moscow, so grandstanding to shore up Africa’s support in an increasingly unfriendly world was no doubt on his mind.

Putin said Russia would not agree to an extension unless “grain and fertilisers go to the African countries in need, and not to satiated European markets and countries”.

Putin added: “From 1 August 2022 to 20 March 2023, 827 ships left Ukraine, of which only 3 million tonnes of grain were sent to Africa and 1.3 million to the poorest countries in Africa – while 45% went to Europe.”

Parallel to the BSGI, the UN and Turkey brokered a deal to lift all sanctions on exports of Russian grain.

President Putin recently threatened to block the next extension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, due in May, because he claims Europe was getting most of the grain and Africa very little. (Photo: iStock)

Putin claimed that almost 12 million tonnes of Russian grain had gone to Africa and that, if Russia decided not to extend the BSGI in May: “Russia will be ready to supply the same amount that was delivered under the deal, from Russia to the African countries in great need, at no expense.”

Putin’s BSGI figures do not quite reflect the current reality and probably did not reflect the reality when he spoke either, though it is true that Europe is getting more grain than Africa.

Daily Maverick’s analysis of statistics released by the UN’s BSGI office shows that, as at 18 April 2023, the initiative had supplied 28.35 million tonnes of grain, of which 33.6% had gone to European countries and 11.71% to African countries.

China was by far the largest ­recipient, receiving 6.5 million tonnes, or 22.9% of the total. Spain was second with 4.9 million tonnes.

Of African countries, Egypt received the most, 1.2 million tonnes, followed by Tunisia with 654,200 tonnes, Libya with 533,100 tonnes, Kenya with 327,100 tonnes and Ethiopia with 232,800 tonnes.

According to the UN’s own analysis, by 5 March, when 23.35 million tonnes had been delivered in total, 45% had gone to developed countries, 6% to least developed countries and 49% to other developing countries. In other words, the majority of grain had gone to developing countries.

About 49% of the BSGI deliveries have been maize, 28% wheat and the rest other products such as sunflowers. The UN says 65% of the wheat and 49% of the maize has been delivered to developed countries.

“Developing countries have benefited the most from the initiative, supporting food security among the most vulnerable,” the UN said.

Western diplomats point out that these statistics don’t give the full picture.

“Ukraine has also been the main supplier of grains for the World Food Programme (WFP)-led food security support to countries most in need,” said an EU official. “Through the Black Sea Grain Initiative, the WFP is also able again to export grain from Ukraine to countries most in need.

“Shipments purchased by the WFP are going directly to the people most acutely food insecure. To date [late March], WFP-charted vessels transported over 456,000 tonnes of wheat through various Black Sea ports, supporting Ethiopia (38%), Afghanistan (23%), Yemen (21%), Somalia (12%) and Kenya (5%).

“These humanitarian efforts have been further intensified through Ukraine’s initiative, Grain from Ukraine, launched by President [Volodymyr] Zelensky on 26 November to facilitate grain exports to countries most in need, strongly supported by the EU and its member states.

“In general, it is important to note that prices for foodstuffs like grain and oilseeds are fairly similar across the world, similar to the oil price. That is why it matters less where shipments are destined.

“What matters is that millions of tonnes of foodstuffs from Ukraine reach global markets anywhere, without delays and restrictions from Russia and its war on Ukraine. This is key to continue lowering the price of food for people everywhere.”

The EU official said the BSGI and the EU’s Solidarity Lanes initiative had jointly contributed to a 15% drop in global food prices since the peak in March 2022. The Solidarity Lanes initiative has been unblocking logistic and bureaucratic impediments to the inland export of Ukrainian grain, via rivers, railways and roads.

Western officials also claim Russia is hampering the BSGI by allowing only five or six inspections a day by three teams of ships participating in the initiative.

“As a result, the backlog of waiting ships is growing and the exports are down – from more than 3.5 million tonnes per month in the last quarter of 2022 to barely three million tonnes in January.

“Close to 100 ships are waiting just to begin the process. The average waiting time of vessels is 20 days with a cost of $20,000 a day. No improvements are expected,” said the official.

The UN has pointed out that restrictions in supply from Ukraine have not been the only cause of rising food prices. The rising US dollar has lowered the exchange rate of many countries, so that some have ended up paying more to import food. In Egypt, the wheat price rose by 13% and in Ghana and South Sudan by about 10%, the UN said.

And, in a curious twist to the war-induced food crisis, Poland and Hungary this month banned the import of Ukrainian agricultural goods, because they said these were harming their own farmers. However, this referred to food exported from Ukraine by land and not through the BSGI. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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