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Can Türkiye salvage Ukraine-Russia grain deal?

The landmark Ukraine-Russia grain deal is set to expire this week. If both sides fail to renew it, food prices worldwide are likely to go up in light of the shortage of wheat and fertiliser supplies. 

Implementation of the deal was overseen by the Türkiye-led and Istanbul-based Joint Coordination Center, also backed by the UN, helping Ukraine export nearly 23 million tonnes of its grain and other food products to global markets.

The Kremlin, however, believes the agreement did not benefit Russia much as Moscow could not sell most of its agricultural commodities due to Western sanctions. 

Now, Russia has been demanding “unhindered access to world markets” before agreeing to extend the deal further.

But Eugene Chausovsky, a defence expert and a senior analyst at New Lines Institute, is optimistic about the extension of the deal. 

“In general, the Black Sea Grain Initiative has been the only major diplomatic agreement that has involved both Russia and Ukraine since the start of the war and it has proven to be very resilient despite many challenges and obstacles, in large part due to the mediation of Türkiye and the UN,” Chausovsky tells TRT World

But Gregory Simons, an associate professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University, has another opinion. 

“It is a bit more uncertain whether it shall go through once more. There is even less trust between the warring parties (directly and indirectly) since the last time it was extended,” says Simons.

Simons, however, believes that “Türkiye will likely once more be the key factor in seeing the deal renewed”. 

Engaged in a brutal war for over a year, Ukraine and Russia have many similarities, ranging from religion to history. 

The two Orthodox Slavic nations are also among the top five grain-exporting nations. However, in the initial months of the conflict, the two countries could not sell their wheat and other agricultural products in global markets as they had done before the war.

At the peak of the conflict, Türkiye last year took on the task of mediating between Moscow and Kiev. While the world grappled with grain shortages and a looming hunger crisis of biblical proportions, the Turkish mediation bore fruit in the form of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which secured the supply of grain to countries in need, particularly in the global south and other regions, by enabling Ukraine and Russia to export their grain.

Russia demanding concessions

According to Simons, Ukraine is willing to extend the deal without any prerequisites, but Russia is likely to make the deal’s extension contingent on its economic concerns. 

To agree to renew the deal, Russia may seek assurances that Ukraine should deliver more supplies to Africa instead of sending most of them to European markets, Simons said. 

“Thus, Russia might force Ukraine to keep its pledge to supply the global south as well, something Ukraine has reneged on,” Simons tells TRT World. 

But Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes Russia’s long-standing objections might hinder the grain exports to the global south following the expiry of the deal. 

“It seems to me that a big question is whether Russia will block extension and risk being seen in the Global South as the one blocking Ukrainian grain shipments,” Pifer tells TRT World. 

“While Ukraine wants the grain deal to be renewed, Russia might have some reservations to extend the agreement,” says Yasar Sari, an expert at Haydar Aliyev Eurasian Research Center of Ibn Haldun University. 

According to Chausovsky, Russia’s concerns were discussed during UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s recent visit to Ukraine, which suggests efforts are being made to find a solution to Moscow’s reservations. 

“Russia has its interests in allowing the shipments to go through or not, which will need to be satisfied. Ukraine and its Western patrons have their interests and objectives, but may well require some concessions as stated above,” says Simons. 

Despite Moscow’s reservations about renewing the grain deal, media reports suggest that the West’s sanctions have not directly targeted the Russian agricultural sector. Instead, it’s the cascading effect of the sanctions that is hurting Moscow’s payments, logistics and insurance sectors – key pillars of the export chain. 

Türkiye’s role 

Simons believes that the deal’s renewal requires a lot of effort and “highly skilled diplomacy, something the West is incapable of at this stage”. But the professor thinks that Türkiye, which “is perfecting diplomacy” in the Ukraine conflict, might convince both sides to extend the deal.  

“We are working hard for the smooth implementation and further extension of the Black Sea grain deal,” said Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, during a speech at the UN Conference on Least Developed Countries in Doha, Qatar last week. 

Considering continuing tensions between the West and Russia, there will be “a very hard process of bargaining” to extend the deal in the coming negotiations, says Simons. “My main understanding is a general lack of trust and hostility that has been generated as being the main obstacle than any one particular point to bargain,” the professor says. 

Türkiye has its interests in terms of its role as a balancing power in international relations, increasing its global brand status as an honest broker, according to Simons. As a result, like last year’s groundbreaking deal, Turkish diplomacy might once again persuade both sides to come to terms to renew the deal, he says. 

“Türkiye has played a key role, along with the UN, in brokering and facilitating the grain agreement, and Ankara has proven to have enough leverage with both Moscow and Kiev to keep the deal in place for nearly one year. Thus, it can be expected that Türkiye will do everything in its power to extend the agreement once again,” says Chausovsky. 

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