Russia suspends Black Sea grain deal, hours after Crimean bridge explosion

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Russia halted participation on Monday in the year-old UN-brokered deal that lets Ukraine export grain through the Black Sea, spreading a sense of dread in poorer countries where people fear price rises will put food out of reach.

Hours earlier, a blast knocked out Russia’s bridge to Crimea in what Moscow called a strike by Ukrainian sea drones. Russia said two civilians were killed and their daughter wounded in what Moscow cast as a terrorist attack on the road bridge, a major artery for Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.

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The Kremlin said there was no link between the attack and its decision to suspend the grain deal, over what it called a failure to meet its demands to implement a parallel agreement easing rules for its own food and fertilizer exports.

“Unfortunately, the part of these Black Sea agreements concerning Russia has not been implemented so far, so its effect is terminated,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres signaled that Russia’s withdrawal meant that the related pact to facilitate Russia’s grain and fertilizer exports was also terminated.

“Today’s decision by the Russian Federation will strike a blow to people in need everywhere,” he told reporters.

Moscow said it would consider rejoining the grain deal if it saw “concrete results” on its demands but that its guarantees for the safety of navigation would meanwhile be revoked.

In Washington, the White House said Russia’s suspension of the pact “will worsen food security and harm millions.”

Global food prices

Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest exporters of grain and other foodstuffs and any interruption could drive up food prices across the globe, especially in the poorest countries.

Shashwat Saraf, the emergency director in East Africa for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), said the impacts would be far-reaching in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, which have been facing the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in decades.

“I don’t know how we will survive,” said Halima Hussein, a mother of five children living in a crowded camp in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu for people displaced by years of failed rains and violence.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy raised the prospect of resuming grain exports without Russia’s participation, suggesting Kyiv would seek Turkey’s support to effectively negate the Russian de facto blockade imposed last year.

“We are not afraid,” spokesperson Serhiy Nykyforov quoted Zelenskyy as saying. “We were approached by companies, shipowners. They said that they are ready, if Ukraine lets them go, and Turkey continues to let them through, then everyone is ready to continue supplying grain.”

Bridge blast

The blast on the road bridge to Crimea could have a direct impact on Moscow’s ability to supply its troops in southern Ukraine, and reveals the vulnerability of Russia’s own Black Sea infrastructure to devices such as seaborne drones: small, fast remote-controlled boats packed with explosives.

Images showed a section of the road bridge had come down and traffic was halted in both directions, although a parallel railway bridge was still operational. Blasts were reported before dawn on the 19-km (12-mile) bridge, which Putin ordered built after seizing and annexing the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Kyiv gave no official account of the blasts but Ukrainian media quoted unidentified officials as saying Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) was behind it. SBU spokesperson Artem Dekhtyarenko euphemistically alluded to the idea that the agency would reveal the details of the blast after Ukraine won the war, without directly claiming responsibility.

Ukraine says the bridge is illegal and its use by Russia for military supplies makes it a legitimate target. It was hit by a massive explosion and fire in October.

The grain deal was hailed as preventing a global food emergency when it was brokered by the United Nations and Turkey last year.

Global commodity food prices rose on Monday, though the increase was limited, suggesting traders did not yet anticipate a severe supply crisis.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the grain deal’s sponsor, said earlier on Monday that he still believed Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted it to continue.

Western countries say Russia is trying to use its leverage over the grain deal to weaken financial sanctions, which do not apply to Russia’s agricultural exports.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described Russia’s suspension of the agreement as a “cynical move” and said the EU would continue to try to secure food for poor countries.

Without Russia?

Russia has agreed three times in the past year to extend the Black Sea deal, despite repeatedly threatening to walk out. It suspended participation after an attack on its fleet by seaborne Ukrainian drones in October, leading to a few days when Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations kept exports going without Moscow.

Denys Marchuk, deputy head of the Ukrainian Agrarian Council, the main agribusiness organization in Ukraine, said seaborne exports might proceed again without Russian agreement.

“If there will be safety guarantees from our partners, then why not conduct the grain initiative without Russia’s participation?” he told Reuters.

Any such resumption of without Russia’s blessing would probably depend on insurers. Industry sources told Reuters they were studying whether to freeze their coverage.

“The (key) question is whether Russia mines the area which would effectively cease any form of cover being offered,” one insurance industry source said.

The balance of sea power has shifted since Russia imposed its blockade in the war’s early months. Kyiv, with no comparable fleet of its own, managed to sink Russia’s flagship, recapture the Snake Island outcrop overlooking shipping lanes, and target Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in port with drones.

The latest blast on Russia’s bridge to Crimea follows months of Ukrainian strikes on Russian supply lines as Kyiv pursues a counteroffensive to drive Russian forces out of its territory.

Read more:

Ukraine attacked Crimea bridge using drones, says Russia's Anti-Terrorist Committee

Ukrainian media reports cite sources saying Kyiv behind Crimea bridge incident

Ukraine, US and UK behind Crimea bridge attack: Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman

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