Black Sea Strategic Developments After the Demise of the Grain Initiative
Russia’s decision to abandon the crucially important Grain Initiative, negotiated between Ukraine and Russia last year and facilitated by the UN and Turkey, has been, diplomatically and militarily, like throwing a grenade in a hen house, raising in turn a number of new questions pertaining to rather deeply concerning strategic developments in the Black Sea region as an offshoot from the Ukraine war.
The indispensability of both Ukrainian and Russian agricultural products and fertilizers to the global struggle for avoiding food scarcity in a number of Western and other states – and for avoiding outright famine in poor countries such as those in the Horn of Africa – has been highlighted following Ukraine’s war of liberation against Russian aggression. Hence the importance of the Grain Initiative last year, sponsored by the UN as representative of the global need for these food stuffs and by Turkey as the country that legitimately claims ownership of the outlet from the Black Sea via the Turkish straits under the 1936 Montreux Convention.
There has been some international speculation that the Russian veto to a (globally needed) prolongation of the Grain Initiative, in spite of intense urging from Turkey and the UN and others, was arrived at as a reaction to some apparent pro-Western steps by Turkey in conjunction with the Vilnius NATO summit in mid-July, such as Turkish president Erdogan telling visiting president Zelinsky that “Ukraine deserves NATO membership” and Erdogan seemingly dropping his veto against Sweden’s NATO accession. Whatever truth there might be in this, what Russia has clearly stated as reason for the stance is that Western sanctions pertaining to this sector have led to the deal one-sidedly favoring the Ukrainian side. And now global food prices are again critically up, critically hurting the international community’s, notably FAO’s, ability to save lives in the most exposed parts of the world.
So now, in parallel, Ukraine is in a process of negotiating alternative export routes, either seeking to exploit Romanian and Bulgarian sea lanes into Turkish waters or using land transport together with shipments on the Danube, all the while Turkey – in a variant of its classical balancing acts – claims that a way out of the stalemate must be with Russia, not against Russia, and hence both rejects use of the Black Sea (and Turkish Straits) on alternative routes in defiance of Russian threats to intervene militarily, and demonstrates lack of interest in elaborating other alternatives. Presumably, Turkish diplomacy simultaneously seeks to reach out to the US and other Western powers with attempts (so far in vain) at persuading these to be helpful and show some understanding for Russia’s conditions returning to compliance with the Initiative.
For Ukraine, normally a good friend of Turkey, a friendship based on (among other things) gratitude for Turkey’s words and actions in support and understanding for Turkey’s delicate balancing acts, the problem is not only Russia preventing the prolongation of the Initiative and economic consequences of this but clearly also recent Russian acts of threats to non-Russian naval traffic in the Black Sea and recent days’ bombardments of Ukrainian port facilities in Odessa and Mykolaiev, Russia aggressively demonstrating the long-term perspectives of its refusal to cooperate in this vital area, no matter how Turkey urges and the UN appeals.
Hence, the other day, the second meeting at the Vilnius Summit initiated a new Ukraine-NATO Council which reportedly saw strong Zelensky appeals for a stronger NATO presence in the Black Sea (in spite of the Montreux Convention) with a view to militarily countering Russia’s aggressive presence and activities there – an agenda item discussed for years within the Alliance – and the NATO opposite numbers responding – again reportedly – with a pledge, in principle, to do just that, to expand its military presence in the Black Sea area, presumably in close coordination with most affected allies, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, and partners, Georgia (?) and Moldova (?). The extent to which these NATO steps (if and when these will materialize) will entail challenging the restrictions imposed by the Montreux Convention and its guardian state Turkey. If so, then we have to predict added, serious problems for Erdogan’s Turkey in its balancing acts and added complications in the relationship between Turkey and the other NATO countries.
It seems, for now, with endless uncertainties mounting, and ensuing regional and also global implications, that we are to expect the Ukraine war seriously risking expanding militarily to a hitherto relatively spared Black Sea region context. But it remains of great interest to compare developments in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea areas.