Russia Seeks to Kill Ukraine Grain Exports and Stoke Kyiv-Warsaw Tensions

NATO condemns Russia’s Black Sea blockade

28 July 2023

Aleksandra Klitina

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Pressed on the battlefield, Russia has bombed grain infrastructure in Odesa and other Ukrainian ports to cut it from the global grain market, reestablish its dominance in Africa and drive a wedge between Kyiv and some of its key Western supporters.

Russia’s recent withdrawal from the Black Sea grain deal and its bombardment of port and storage facilities in Odesa and Danube ports vital for Ukraine food exports have been long in the making as Moscow struggles to stop Ukrainian counter-offensive. 

The objective is to eject Ukraine out of the global food market but also to put a strain on Ukraine’s relations with its neighbours such as Poland, which, for domestic political reasons, opposes redirecting Ukraine’s grain towards Europe. 

Kerch bridge destruction was only a pretext 

The pretext for pulling out from the UN-supported grain deal and raining missiles on Odesa were the explosions, allegedly staged by Ukrainian special forces, that damaged the Kerch bridge connecting Crimea to Russia on July 17. 

On the same day, Russia pulled the plug on the grain deal but internal Russian documents released by the Ukrainian military intelligence showed Moscow took administrative steps to prevent ships from actually loading Ukrainian grain already in October 2022. 

“Ukrainians’ attempts to use the Black Sea initiative to continue the so-called ‘Grain from Ukraine’ program involving vessels chartered under the World Food Programme have been stopped,” stated an internal Russian report published by Ukraine intelligence.

“The registration of such vessels was carried out only after submission of written commitments not to participate in such actions.” 

The bombardments of Odesa is an escalation of the plan just on the eve of the 2023 harvest. On July 19, Russian missiles destroyed 60,000 tonnes of agricultural products destined for China. On July 24, Russia targeted four grain hangars on the Danube. 

Russian officials and media called these attacks “retaliatory strikes” for the damage to the Kerch Bridge. 

Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman Andriy Yusov dismissed this narrative. 

“No, this is not retaliation, as the withdrawal from the grain deal was announced long before the events on the Kerch bridge. These events are unrelated, nor are the recent missile strikes. It takes time to organise, plan and implement such an attack.” Yusov said.

Russia’s been unhappy about the grain deal already earlier, as it reduced its scope to blackmail the West and put pressure on the “Global South”, which is most exposed to grain shortages and rising prices on global markets. Moscow has repeatedly threatened to suspend its participation under different pretexts. In reality, it has two aims: win some sanctions relief for its food and fertiliser exports and to cut off Ukraine from an important source of revenue. 

Russia’s agricultural sector is not subject to direct sanctions, but Moscow claims that other restrictions hinder its producers, making it difficult, for example, to make payments. That is why Russia has offered to refloat the grain initiative for Rosselkhozbank’s access to the SWIFT international payment system.  The UN has not ruled out such a concession but so far the West is not inclined to budge.  

Other Russia’s demands include the supply of agricultural machinery and spare parts, unblocking transport logistics and insurance, restoring the Togliatti-Odessa pipeline, which used to carry Russian ammonia, and unblocking foreign accounts of Russian companies involved in producing and transporting food and fertilizer.

Russia’s plan for Africa 

At the same time, Russia is touting its own plan to supply vulnerable African countries, some of which have been Moscow’s long-term partners, while excluding Ukraine from the market.

According to press reports, Russian President Vladimir Putin has asked Qatar to pay for the delivery of Russian grain to Turkey, which would then be in charge of distributing it to Africa. 

So far there have been no indications that Qatar and Turkey agreed with Putin’s idea. 

Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal has angered some governments in Africa, just as Putin hosts their leaders in St Petersburg. 

“The decision by Russia to exit the Black Sea Grain Initiative is a stab in the back at global food security prices and disproportionately impacts countries in the Horn of Africa already affected by drought,” Korir Sing’Oei, the top civil servant in Kenya’s foreign ministry said in a tweet last week. 

Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia are in the Horn of Africa, but authorities elsewhere on the continent are also sounding the alarm. Some African leaders skipped the meeting, in a sign of growing unease with Moscow, including the President of Niger Mohamed Bazoum. 

Bazoum, a pro-Western leader in the poor sub-Saharan region of Africa faced a coup on July 27, just as the meeting in St Petersburg started. 

The coup, staged by army officers, put the spotlight on the Russia’s continued influence in the region and the involvement of the Wagner mercenary group. Wagner’s presence in Africa might have appeared to be under question following their failed mutiny in Russia a month ago.  

Wagner leader Yevgenny Prigrozhin showed up on the sidelines of the summit with African leaders, showing he still has utility for Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

All in all, only 17 out of 49 countries are represented at the level of heads of state. Delegations of 10 African countries will be headed by prime ministers and another 17 – deputy prime ministers or ministers. Ambassadors will represent five African states, while another five have refused to participate altogether. 

Putin’s pitch to the leaders confirmed his intentions to push Ukraine out.  

“Russia is ready to substitute Ukrainian grain in Africa, especially amid record harvests,” Putin said in his opening speech. 

A vital sector for Ukraine and the world  

Before the war, Ukraine exported more grain than the European Union, supplying about half of the sunflower seeds and oil sold worldwide. Even during Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine was the sixth-largest exporter of wheat and the third-largest exporter of corn. Last season, Ukraine’s grain exports exceeded 48 million tonnes. According to the European Commission, Ukraine accounts for 10 per cent of the world wheat market, 15 per cent of the corn market, and 13 per cent of the barley market. 

The grain deal sponsored by the UN and Turkey allowed Ukraine’s three Black Sea ports to open for harvest shipments. All ships had to be inspected on entry and exit at a centre set up in Istanbul, jointly staffed by Russia and Ukraine, as well as Turkey and the UN. During the year of the agreement, almost 33 million tonnes of Ukrainian agricultural products were shipped. 

China, Spain, and Turkey have been the biggest buyers of Ukrainian food shipped through the safe corridor. Poorer countries such as Egypt and Bangladesh have imported more than a million tonnes each under the program. The UN has stressed that shipments under the agreement help to increase global supplies and reduce prices, regardless of where the grain is delivered. Global grain prices jumped again after Russia withdrew from the deal.

The move puts in jeopardy the “Grain from Ukraine” initiative, under which Ukraine supplied poorest countries in Africa and Asia, with Ukraine’s partner countries footing the bill. According to the UN, Ukraine supplied more than 250,000 tonnes of grain to Ethiopia and Yemen, 130,000 tonnes to Afghanistan, and more than 50,000 tonnes to Somalia.

This season, Ukraine’s export potential is estimated at over 40 million tonnes of grain including 13.8 mln tonnes of wheat, 2.4 mln tonnes of barley and 24 mln tonnes of corn, without considering the remnants of the last harvest. 

This is despite the fact that significant grain production will be limited by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam by the Russian troops. Losses caused by the flooding and destruction of arable land are estimated at up to $10 billion over the next five years. Approximately 10,000 hectares of agricultural land on the right bank of the Kherson region and 20,000-30,000 hectares on the occupied left bank have been flooded.

The disaster, according to the Ukraine’s Ministry of Agrarian Policy, will cut off water supply to 31 irrigation systems in Dnipro, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions. As much as 94 per cent of irrigation systems in Kherson, 74 per cent in Zaporizhzhia, and 30 per cent in Dnipro regions will be deprived of proper water supply, meaning that the south of Ukraine faces a drought.

Tensions with Poland 

Ukraine’s ability to ship grain abroad is further threatened by resistance of some of its neighbours in central Europe, notably Poland, to keep the EU market open for Ukrainian exports. Under pressure from Warsaw, supported by Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, the European Commission banned Ukrainian grain imports earlier this year until September 15. 

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki last week threatened to defy EU single market rules and impose a unilateral ban on Ukrainian exports unless the Commission finds a new system of ensuring the grain is not allowed to be offered on the Polish market. 

On July 20, The Ukrainian government called on Poland to lift its ban on imports of Ukrainian agricultural products and on the EU to create a compensation mechanism for Ukrainian farmers affected by export restrictions.

“We call on Polish colleagues to remember the principle of partnership. Blocking Ukrainian grain at the EU border is unacceptable,” Yulia Svyrydenko, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy, twitted.

“Russian aggression makes a real threat to our farmers – the destruction of ports and grain silos, blockade of the Black Sea make work hard and dangerous.” Svyrydenko said.

At a meeting of EU farm ministers on July 25, Poland failed to win broad support for its hardline stance, according to press reports. The Baltic countries, among the most ardent supporters of Ukraine’s struggle, offered its ports as a route for the export of Ukrainian grain.

“The Baltic States have five ports that could be used to safely export much more of Ukraine’s grain. We are officially proposing that the European Commission help us increase the capacity of the railways on the Baltic Sea Route,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said. Landsbergis wrote.

The subject of Ukrainian grain passage through the Black Sea was discussed also at the first  NATO-Ukraine Council on 26 July. 

“Russia bears full responsibility for its dangerous and escalatory actions in the Black Sea region,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

“Russia must stop weaponising hunger, and threatening the world’s most vulnerable people with food instability. Russia’s actions also pose substantial risks to the stability of the Black Sea region, which is of strategic importance to NATO. Allies are stepping up support to Ukraine and increasing our vigilance. We remain ready to defend every inch of Allied territory from any aggression.”

Nato welcomed the continued efforts of Turkey to revive the grain deal and the efforts of other Allies – including Bulgaria and Romania – as well as the European Union and the United Nations to enable the continued export of Ukrainian grain by land and sea. 

In Poland, however, the grain issue remained hostage to the ongoing election campaign. On July 27 a group of angry farmers tried to occupy the agriculture ministry, accusing the government of inaction. 

The tensions over Ukraine’s food exports may be a harbinger of future disputes with Poland, who had until recently portrayed itself as the champion of Ukraine’s EU and NATO membership. Driving a wedge between Poland and Ukraine is certainly in Moscow’s interest. 

“The continuous strikes on the loading infrastructure in the Odesa region as well as the first attacks on Ukrainian ports on the Danube confirm that Russia is seeking to completely prevent Ukraine from exporting grain via sea,” Poland’s government-funded Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) said in a note. 

“Depriving Kyiv of its only proprietary export route would make Ukraine fully dependent on its neighbours from the EU. After withdrawing from the grain initiative, Moscow aims not only to create obstacles for the Ukrainian economy but also to deepen the reluctance of neighbouring states to continue their support for the country”.


Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Aleksandra Klitina

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Aleksandra Klitina is a Future of Ukraine Fellow as well as a Senior Correspondent for Kyiv Post, with over a decade of experience in private and public institutions, including serving as a former Deputy Minister in Ukraine’s Ministry of Infrastructure. She has a background in advocating infrastructure and public administration reforms and has worked on EU projects in Ukraine.

Your Central European Intelligence

Democratic security comes at a price. What is yours?
Subscribe now for full access to expert analysis and policy debate on Central Europe.


Weekly updates with our latest articles and the editorial commentary.