KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US – After five months of death, destruction and darkness, a ray of hope emerged on July 22 from the Russia-Ukraine conflict that has engulfed the Black Sea region and sent destructive shockwaves around the world. When Russia and Ukraine signed a deal that would eliminate the blockade of Ukraine’s three major Black Sea ports and allow millions of tonnes of grain to flow freely to global destinations, it was a positive development for a world desperately craving good news.
Less than 24 hours later, that ray of hope was all but extinguished when Russia fired four missiles toward the Port of Odesa. Although no grain assets were targeted or hit in the attack, the message sent by Russian President Vladimir Putin was clear: Nothing will stop Russia from doing what it wants, when it wants.
The agreement, which would allow 20 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain to be exported, has the potential to significantly lower grain prices and reduce food shortages and inflation that has contributed to the record number of people around the world living in food insecurity. None of that apparently matters to Putin, the Russian dictator whose unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine on Feb. 24 has further destabilized a world that is still grappling with the worst pandemic in more than 100 years.
Poorer nations were seeing a sharp increase in food insecurity BEFORE the first shot was fired in the Russia-Ukraine war on Feb. 24. The war proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, sending grain prices into the stratosphere and causing a frenetic shift in grain trade flows, which is what happens when a top five grain producer and exporter is abruptly cut off from the global market.
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan deserve credit for brokering the Russia-Ukraine deal that, if followed, will positively impact the lives of millions in countries that depend on Ukraine for their daily bread. For places like Sudan, where food prices have risen 187% in the last six months, and Syria, which has seen food prices increase by 86%, anything that will shift grain prices lower and add more product to the supply chain is a godsend.
With the war still raging, and after the July 23 missile attack, it’s naïve to think this deal is on anything but very shaky ground. Putin’s volatile nature is reason enough to be skeptical that the agreement can endure. There are also questions about the logistics of moving grain through waters dotted with sea mines as well as the condition of the Ukrainian grain, much of which has sat in storage longer than intended.
Perhaps more important than the actual volume of grain entering the global market is the symbolic aspect of the agreement. Global, national and even local politics have deteriorated so badly in recent years that an agreement of any sort between opposing factions — particularly those engaged in a bloody military battle — is a surprising development. The hope, at least before the missile attack, was the agreement could lead these warring countries to find middle ground on other issues.
Sadly, Russia’s decision to attack the Port of Odesa before the ink had even dried on the agreement quickly extinguished such optimism.
Arvin Donley is editor of World Grain.