International

Explained: What's At Stake In Putin-Erdogan Talks Over Grain Export Deal, How Has Turkey Become A Broker In Ukraine War?

Ukraine and Russia are among biggest exporters of grain and fertilisers in the world and disruption in their supplies have caused inflation and food insecurity in parts of the world. Turkey is the primary broker on the issue of grain exports.

Bulk grain cargo ship TQ Samsun anchored in the Black Sea near Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul, Turkey
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are set to meet in Russia's Sochi on Monday to discuss the issue of halted grain export from Ukrainian ports. 

Formally, the agenda of the Putin-Erdogan meeting is to discuss the "development of mutually beneficial cooperation and "international agenda". 

In July, Russia refused to renew the deal that allowed grain to be exported from Ukraine through the Black Sea. The deal had been brokered by the United Nations (UN) and Turkey, which has emerged as a key mediator in the Ukraine War. 

Ukraine and Russia are among biggest exporters of grain and fertilisers in the world and disruption in their supplies have caused inflation and food insecurity in parts of the world. On its part, Russia has complained that while the deal allowed Ukrainian grain to be exported, the reciprocal supply of Russian agricultural products and fertilisers to international markets was not ensured. 

Here we explain what's at stakes when Putin and Erdogan meet, why Russia walked out of the grain deal, and how Turkey has emerged as a mediator in Ukraine War.

Why did Russia leave the Black Sea grain deal?

When Russia began the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, around 20 million tonnes of grain meant for export was stuck in Black Sea ports.

The disruption in supply from Ukraine, which produces around 10 per cent of world's grain, led to price rise in international markets and shortage in Africa and the Middle East where countries depend on Ukrainian grain imports. 

In July 2022, the UN and Turkey brokered a deal that allowed the export of grain after the Russian Navy checked no weapons were going in or out of Ukraine through ships transporting grain. 

In July 2023, however, Russia refused to renew the grain export deal. It alleged that it did not receive reciprocal access to international markets. 

The BBC News reported, "When the UN brokered the deal, it told Russia it would help it increase its exports of grain and fertilisers. Although Western countries have imposed no sanctions on Russia's agricultural products, Russia says the broader restrictions which are in place have deterred shipping firms, international banks and insurers from dealing with its producers."

Russia has made a list of demands and has said it would join the deal once the demands are met. There have been exchanges between the UN and Russia on the issue but no agreement has yet been reached. 

The stakes and importance of Ukraine, Russia for food security

Ukraine is known as the 'breadbasket of Europe' as it is an agricultural powerhouse of the continent.

Together, Russia and Ukraine are the biggest exporters of grains and fertilisers to the world. The disruption in their supplies threatens food security in several countries, particularly in Africa, that depend on it. The prices have already risen. BBC notes, "The ending of the deal has already had a severe effect on international food markets, with wheat prices rising sharply on both European and US wholesale markets."

Consider these figures to understand the stakes: Ukraine produces around 10 per cent of the world's grain; Russia produces around 18 per cent of the world's grain; Russia has a 14 per cent market share of barley and Ukraine 12 per cent; Russia has a 26 per cent share of world’s sunflower oil supplies, whereas Ukraine is the world’s largest exporter with a whopping share of 37 per cent; Russia and ally Belarus are also major fertiliser supplier; Russia’s share in the world's fertiliser supply is around 17 per cent, Russia and Belarus in 2021 exported 40 per cent of the world's potash. 

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How has Turkey emerged as a broker?

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Turkey has emerged as a deal-maker. It has facilitated prisoner swaps and struck grain deals. 

Turkey has also played both the sides. As a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Turkey has supported Ukraina's NATO membership bid and has supplied it weapons and drones. At the same time, Turkey and President Erdogan have used Russia and Putin's international isolation in their favour by giving a boost to tourism and industry. 

"The Turkish president has maintained close ties to Putin during the 18-month war in Ukraine. Turkey hasn't joined Western sanctions against Russia following its invasion, emerging as a main trading partner and logistical hub for Russia’s overseas trade...Putin and Erdogan — both authoritarian leaders who have been in power for more than two decades — are said to have a close rapport, fostered in the wake of a failed coup against Erdogan in 2016 when Putin was the first major leader to offer his support," notes Associated Press (AP). 

Turkey and Erdogan have used the closeness of the two countries and economic integration as well. In recent years, AP notes, "Traditional rivals Turkey and Russia grew closer over the following years as trade levels rose and they embarked on joint projects such as the Turkstream gas pipeline and Turkey’s first nuclear power plant... Russia-Turkey relations in fields such as energy, defense, diplomacy, tourism and trade have flourished despite the countries being on opposing sides in conflicts in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh."

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What are Russian demands to rejoin grain deals?

There have been exchanges between the UN and Russia but an agreement has not been reached for the grain export deal.

Russia has provided the West with a list of demands and UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently sent Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov "concrete proposals" but Russia does not consider them adequate.

"Erdogan has indicated sympathy with Putin’s position. In July, he said Putin had 'certain expectations from Western countries' over the Black Sea deal and that it was 'crucial for these countries to take action in this regard'...UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently sent Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov 'concrete proposals' aimed at getting Russian exports to global markets and allowing the resumption of the Black Sea initiative. But Lavrov said Moscow wasn't satisfied with the letter," reported AP.

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan has said that there are "many issues ranging from financial transactions to insurance" and Turkey is making "intense" efforts to revive the agreement, according to AP, adding that the country is currently in a "process that tries to better understand Russia’s position and requests, and to meet them".

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