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  • Writer's pictureMaxim Savinykh

A Shaky “Grain Deal” and the Turkish Elections



Russian dissatisfaction


Since the establishment of the “Grain Deal”, Russia often expressed skepticism and criticism regarding this agreement. In the Autumn of 2022, Vladimir Putin stated: “As the people say, “they [the West] screwed it”, fooled, not only us [Russia], but also the poorest countries, and this all under the pretext of helping”[1]. Russian president Putin, turning to his traditional anti-colonial narrative and blaming Western countries for the woes of Asian and African countries, claims that the only beneficiaries of the agreement are the US and the EU. The European Union has repeatedly denied such accusations, saying that Moscow creates myths around the deal[2]. Troubled by such conflicting narratives, the agreement is not set in stone for Russia and Moscow could withdraw from it at any moment. More recently, this prospect became increasingly realistic. In April, Russia set the following conditions for the extension of the “Grain deal”:

  • The Russian Agricultural Bank (RusAg) should be reconnected to SWIFT.

  • Sanctions on the supply of agricultural machinery and equipment to Russia should be lifted.

  • Restrictions on insurance and reinsurance of Russian ships carrying grain should be lifted and they should get unlimited access to all international ports.

  • The ammonia-fertilizer pipeline Togliatti - Odessa should be restored.

  • Foreign accounts and assets of Russian companies dealing with the production and transportation of food and fertilizers should be unblocked[4].


Thus, while Russia's previous criticism for the “Grain deal” used to be relatively abstract, appealing to vague notions of ‘injustice’, Moscow has now formulated concrete demands of improvement. However, there is some hesitance in the West to meet the Russian terms. Brussels, for example, officially announced that it was not ready to lift sanctions from the Russian Agricultural Bank thereby increasing concerns of a termination of the deal[5]. However, on the 17th of May Recep Erdogan announced that the agreement has been extended for two more months[6].


The Turkish elections factor


It was no coincidence that it was Erdogan who announced the prolongation of the treaty. Not only was Ankara a key mediator between Russia and Ukraine, but the “Grain Deal” also a token for electoral appeal. On the 15th May, Turkiye held presidential elections in which none of the candidates won an outright victory, prompting the second round. In an effort to win, Erdogan sought to use all his advantages. And the “Grain Deal” is one of them. Foreign policy is an important source of the current Turkish President’s legitimacy and popularity[7]. Despite the difficult economic situation in Turkiye, the local media covered the issue of the “Grain Deal” extensively during the election [8]. Furthermore, Recep Erdogan successfully framed the signing of this agreement as his personal achievement[9]. This way, the extension of the treaty on grain between Russia and Ukraine, mediated by Turkiye, could well be one of the factors that gave Erdogan his narrow advantage in the presidential race.

In this respect, one can question how the current Turkish President could gain a new prolongation of the “Grain deal”. The matter is that from a Russian perspective, Erdogan's victory is beneficial for Russia, and therefore Moscow agreed to maintain its obligations under the agreement for another two months. Such a statement seems contradictory, at least at first glance, as relations between the current presidents have never been easy. Moreover, Kadri Liik, conducting anthropological research about the Russian Foreign Ministry, says that the respondents in the MFA highlighted the existence of a personal conflict between Putin and Erdogan[10]. This is also confirmed by some public statements made by the Russian President. The most striking episode of strained relations is the downing by Turkiye of a Russian military aircraft that was engaging in the military conflict in Syria. Putin called it a “stab in the back” from “terrorist accomplices”, accusing Erdogan indirectly of aiding terrorism[11]. Furthermore, the two sides have discrepancies over the Crimea issue, when Putin explicitly belittled Erdogan, saying that he is “not interested” in the Turkish position regarding the peninsula[12].

However, on a closer look, the situation is more nuanced. Taking into account Putin’s fixation on confrontation with the NATO, on the one hand, and Erdogan’s clashes with some members of the Alliance, on the other, these two Presidents seem to need each other. The Kremlin hopes to undermine Western unity, relying on Turkey, and Ankara tries to confirm its foreign policy of ‘independence’ by improving relations with Moscow. In the context of the post-February 2022 reality, this partnership has become very important, especially for Russia. In this way, Turkey has become an extremely important hub for Russia to circumvent EU and US sanctions.


For its part, the position of another candidate in the Turkish elections, Kemal Kilicdaroglu appeared to be risky for Russia. He is considered a proponent of better relations with the West in general, and the NATO in particular. In order to do so, it seems he would have applied the economic sanctions against Russia in a stricter way than Erdogan. Although the opposition repeatedly stated that in case of Kilicdaroglu’s winning “the good-neighborly relations with Russia will remain”, it’s not clear how in the current reality he wanted to combine it with the improvement of dialogue with the EU and the US. Following this logic, Moscow hardly viewed his ambitions to the presidency positively. At least that is what the state media in RF alluded to when saying that “there are grounds for concern”[13] regarding Kilicdaroglu.


Hence, the assumption that Russia has decided to extend the “Grain deal”, trying to support Recep Erdogan, seems plausible. Another argument in support of this assumption is that just the day after Erdogan's victory, Russian foreign minister reiterated that Moscow might pull out of the deal[14]. The Russian Federation’s agreement to extend the treaty was apparently not firm enough to begin with. However, does that really mean that Russia will abandon the agreement in a few months? Not exactly. If the Kremlin indeed prolonged the treaty because of Turkish elections, it was not the only motivation.


New old Russian 'friends' and their role in the “Grain deal”


Moscow’s ‘pivot to the East’ is not new. Since 2014, Russia has been trying to improve its relations with the Middle Eastern, Asian and African countries[15], [16]. The post-February 2022 reality has intensified this trend. The states of these regions are important to Moscow not only for traditional/legal economic cooperation, but also for circumventing sanctions. At the same time, they are key beneficiaries of the “Grain Deal”. First of all, due to the agreement, they directly get agricultural products from Russia and Ukraine. The details are represented in the following table:


Table 1 MENA countries in global agricultural cargo destinations after the conclusion of the "Grain Deal" in July 2022. https://www.un.org/en/black-sea-grain-initiative/vessel-movements


More importantly, the “Grain deal” positively influences the decrease of prices on agricultural products all around the world. This way, thanks to the agreement, wheat prices have fallen by 57% since March last year[17]. For some countries in the Middle East and Africa, this factor can be crucial in terms of economic and political stability. It is well known that rising food prices exacerbated existing social unrest and contributed to the emergence of mass protests in the MENA over the last decade[18]. On these grounds, countries as the UAE, Egypt and, of course, Turkiye have been constantly trying to persuade Russia to extend the “Grain deal”. Furthermore, Beijing, Moscow's biggest partner also has an interest in maintaining it. The matter is that China is the largest consumer of agricultural products from Russia and Ukraine. Since the conclusion of the agreement China has received 7 billion tons of grain[19].

In this regard, some experts believe that the above countries can keep Moscow from pulling out of the agreement. As it is important for Chinese interests, Xi Jinping, for example, could call Putin personally and persuade him to maintain the deal. Consequently, if Russia, in the end, abandons the “Grain Deal”, it risks to spoil good relations with China, Turkiye and some Arab countries[20], [21]. This argument is indeed reasonable. However, Chinese influence on other countries shouldn’t be also overestimated. In this regard, the example of North Korea is worth our attention. Despite the fact the survival of the regime in North Korea is heavily dependent on China, Pyongyang has been constantly committing actions which caused dissatisfaction on Beijing, such as nuclear tests or the execution of pro-Chinese statesmen[22]. If the People's Republic of China is not very good at influencing policy decisions in relatively small North Korea, will it be able to (perhaps just as importantly, will it want to) put pressure on the Russian Federation if it decides to pull out of the “Grain deal”? This argument may seem outdated in the context of recent diplomatic success of Beijing when it contributed into the normalization between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In this regard, one can conclude that China, increasing the power of its diplomacy, will be able to persuade Russia to maintainthe agreement. However, these two cases have a significant difference. There has been a desire between Tehran and Riyadh to normalize relations since at least April 2021. For its part, Beijing has simply taken advantage of the window of opportunity. Thus, China's mediation efforts with the two Gulf states and Beijing's influence over Russia on the issue of extending the grain deal appear to be different cases. Moreover, the China perceives Russia as an important ally vis-à-vis the U.S. And of course, while Russia isn't China's leading trading partner, yet they have big shared economic interests (especially in energy sphere)[23]. For its part, Turkish economy is heavily dependent on Russia in the spheres of trade, tourism and nuclear energy. Furthermore, as it has already been said, the sides use each other for political clashes with the US and the EU. On these grounds, it appears that if Moscow abandon the “Grain deal”, Beijing and Ankara will be dissatisfied but they unlikely engage in confrontation with it.

Lastly, the statement that Russia will probably maintain the agreement because it doesn’t want to quarrel with its Asian, African and Middle Eastern partners is largely based on instrumentalist premises. Summing up, it is possible to say that the “Grain deal” is a powerful Russian leverage in the MENA-region. It is confirmed by the fact that regional actors constantly raised the issue of prolongation of the agreement in their negotiations with Moscow. This is important for the Kremlin because after the harsh spit with Europe in 2022, the states of the Middle East and North Africa have increased their relevance for Russia. However, the Russian Federation is currently much more concerned by its confrontation with Ukraine and the West. And if Moscow comes to the conclusion that maintaining the agreement can undermine them, it will abandon the “Grain deal”.


This forecast is based on the assumption that Moscow will act according to its pragmatic and utilitarian considerations. However, the contemporary history of the Kremlin’s foreign policy shows that it’s often very difficult to understand what it considers rational and irrational. If Moscow starts perceiving the agreement as contradicting to its interests as it understands them, the Kremlin will abandon it and try to convince its partners that this decision was the right one. If that happens, the theory that Russia has decided to extend the deal first and foremost to support Erdogan in the presidential elections seems validated.

Maxim Savinykh is an independent analyst writing for Ishtar MENA Analytics from St.Petersburg. He is currently finishing his master's in Comparative Politics of Eurasia at the Higher School for Economics in St. Petersburg. His most recent research focuses on Iran's nuclear aspirations.



References:


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