The demise of the Black Sea Grain Initiative
Photo of the now-defunct Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul, 27 July 2022 (photo via X @tcsavunma)
360 days. That is how long the Black Sea Grain Initiative lasted before the Kremlin terminated Russia’s participation in the deal. From its signing on 22 July 2022 to its demise on 17 July 2023, officials from the United Nations, Türkiye, Russia, and Ukraine worked to implement the two separate agreements that comprised the initiative to enable the safe passage of vessels carrying grain, foodstuff, fertilizer, and other goods necessary for staving off a global food security crisis.
When the Black Sea Grain Initiative was signed, the international community lauded it as a demonstration of the power of negotiation during war, but there were structural flaws in the agreements: namely, lack of specificity for Russian-side provisions, and the necessity to renew the deal every 120 days. The Russian government exploited those flaws for leverage as it sought to loosen the international sanctions regime tied to its invasion of Ukraine. In the end, the Russians took the bold move of terminating their participation in the initiative until their demands were met. However, the Kremlin overplayed its hand with its bad faith negotiating tactics, as conditions were substantially different nearly a year after the original deal was concluded. Now, Russia’s weakened maritime presence in the region and the existence of alternatives all but guarantee that the Black Sea Grain Initiative is no more.
While the Black Sea grain deal may be relegated to the annals of history, it is important to take stock of what happened and why it collapsed. This examination reminds practitioners and scholars of important lessons as they consider future wartime negotiations or, more specifically, dealings with the Kremlin. To understand this, it is first necessary to offer some background on the grain deal and the mechanics of its implementation. That serves as a foundation for explanation of how the parties attempted to keep the deal alive through negotiations, as well as how Russia overplayed its hand in terminating the deal. This examination concludes with a full chronology of the implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
Background on the Black Sea Grain Initiative
The fundamental premise of the Black Sea Grain Initiative was simple enough: the parties to the initiative would implement mutually agreed-upon provisions related to the transport of agricultural goods through the Black Sea. There were two agreements signed on 22 July 2022: the Initiative on the Safe Transportation of Grain and Foodstuffs from Ukrainian Ports; and the Memorandum of Understanding on facilitating exports of Russian food products and fertilizers. The agreements identified specific Ukrainian ports (Chernomorsk, Odesa, and Yuhzne) to and from which the vessels would sail. Those vessels would transit through Istanbul, where members of a Joint Coordination Center would inspect them to ensure that they were not transporting weapon systems or other war materiel. Meanwhile, the UN affirmed that it would work to eliminate any obstacles to Russian export of food-related products.
The Joint Coordination Center located in Istanbul was run by the Turkish Ministry of Defense with staffing from the United Nations and governments of Russia, Ukraine, and Türkiye. For its part, the Joint Coordination Center operated smoothly, with no reported hiccups or tension in its operation. There were no cases of illegal goods being smuggled through the Black Sea, and all appeared to be operating well—at least for the first sixty days.
Vessels en route from Ukraine undergo inspection off the coast of Istanbul by Joint Coordination Center personnel, August 2022 (photos via X @tcsavunma)
Negotiating to preserve the Black Sea Grain Initiative
By early October, over six million tons of food-related products had been shipped via the Black Sea Grain Initiative, but despite this early success, the Kremlin started to signal its displeasure with the arrangement. The basic premise of the Russian government’s argument was that implementation of the deal was one-sided—that the agreement yielded no benefits to the Russian side, as promised. At the center of their arguments was the international sanctions regime tied to the Russian invasion, which by their assertions was preventing full operation of the Memorandum of Understanding between Russia and the UN.
But the Russian side would soon reveal how malleable their positions were vis-à-vis the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Two weeks after their first complaint about the operation of the agreements, Ukrainian forces delivered an attack against the Russian Black Sea Fleet. In response, the Russian government announced that it was suspending its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, even though this military-specific action had no relationship to the deal. This sparked a flurry of engagements up to the head of state-level between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin. Within just a few days, Russia came back to the initiative, but not before it had secured written guarantees that Ukrainian forces would not strike Russian commercial vessels.
The Kremlin then turned back to its arguments about one-sided operation of the agreements, using the deal’s extension deadlines to manufacture crises in the negotiating process. Each time, the Russians took the negotiations to the eleventh hour, and they only agreed to one 120-day extension in November 2022 before reducing that to mere 60-day extensions in March and May 2023. All the while, representatives from the highest levels of the UN and governments of Ukraine and Türkiye engaged Russian counterparts on trying to address Russian demands while gaining a reasonable extension of one-year.
Deputy Minister-level representatives from Russia, Türkiye, and Ukraine begin negotiations in Istanbul to extend the Black Sea Grain Initiative, 10 May 2023
Through these negotiations, the Russian side sought six key concessions. The first was reconnecting the Russian Agricultural Bank (Rosselkhozbank) to SWIFT, which would give Russia a vital link back to the global mechanism for transactions that had been severed because of their invasion of Ukraine. The second was resuming supplies of agricultural equipment, spare parts, and services to Russia. Third was lifting restrictions on insurance and reinsurance for vessels transiting to and from Russia. The fourth was lifting the ban on Russian port access. The fifth demand was resuming operation of the Tolyatti-Odesa ammonia pipeline. The sixth concession was unblocking the foreign assets and accounts of Russian companies involved in producing and transporting food and fertilizers.
For its part, the UN went to great lengths to satisfy these requirements. In a letter delivered to Vladimir Putin in early July 2023, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres highlighted that the Russian Union of Grain Exporters and Russian Fertilizer Producers Association both acknowledged that Russian grain trade had reached high export volumes and that fertilizer markets had stabilized to near full recovery. The letter went on to explain the measures that the UN had taken to accommodate Russia’s demands, including the following:
Securing the issuance of U.S. General License 6B and 6C, which “apply not only to U.S. imports from the Russian Federation but also to all countries concerned with their sanctions regime”
Securing two UK General Licenses on finance and trade in food and fertilizers, “which are especially important for the insurance market”
Securing the derogation by the European Union in its ninth sanctions package, “which allowed, for example, the unfreezing of assets of fertilizer companies”
Publication of information to facilitate agricultural trade with Russia, including a “range of clarifications, Frequently Asked Questions, fact sheets, and other guidance to the private sector”
Engagement with the private sector to “find dedicated solutions across banking and insurance sectors [that] led to the progressive normalization of trading conditions since July 2022, including declining freight and insurance rates”
Organizing a bespoke payment mechanism for the Russian Agricultural Bank through JP Morgan
Working closely with the key Russian fertilizer groups to unblock assets “amounting to over 70 per cent of the frozen assets in the original list submitted to us [the United Nations] by the Russian Federation in November 2022”
Facilitating humanitarian donations of Russian fertilizer to the “most in-need countries in Africa”
Brokering a “concrete proposal to enable a subsidiary of the Russian Agricultural Bank to regain access to SWIFT with the European Commission”
Despite these efforts, the Kremlin decided to walk away from the Black Sea Grain Initiative. On 17 July 2023, spokesperson Dmitry Peskov announced that Russia was terminating its participation. A day later, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that starting on 20 July, it would consider all ships crossing the Black Sea to Ukraine to be military-purpose and therefore legitimate targets. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin signaled that Russia was willing to return to the Black Sea Grain Initiative if all obligations to Russia under the deal were met. As if to emphasize its demands, on 19 July, Russian forces executed missile strikes against key grain facilities in Odesa, one of the three ports specified in the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
Images showing the aftermath of Russia’s 19 July 2023 attack against grain facilities in Odesa (photos via X @gerashchenko_en)
The Russian government made a crucial error in its judgment to walk away from the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Fundamentally, the conditions in July 2023 were completely different from the year prior when the parties signed the deal. In July 2022, there was no alternative for the Ukrainians or international partners except a deal brokered with Russia. The international community was not providing the same level of security assistance to Ukraine at the time, and there was greater fear of the risk of Russian escalation in the war. In other words, it was simply not as safe for vessels to be traveling through the Black Sea.
That is not the case now. Ukrainian forces have demonstrated a real threat to the Russian Navy through missile strikes and attacks with unmanned weapon systems. Their tactical successes contributed to a withdrawal of the bulk of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula in late September 2023, reducing the risk of Russian naval intervention for vessels transiting the Black Sea.
Further, immediately following Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Ukraine engaged international partners on the creation of viable ‘temporary’ corridors for the transit of vessels to and from Ukrainian ports. This started with discussions with the United States government on 19 July and NATO on 22 July. By 10 August, the Ukrainian Navy announced the opening of alternate corridors, and on 16 August, they became operational, with major insurers starting their adjustment to the new arrangements. At this point, neither Ukraine nor the international community is solely reliant upon the Black Sea Grain Initiative to maintain the flow of maritime shipments.
The Kremlin may have counted on the actions of some European countries to weaken the overland alternatives for Ukraine. For example, Poland has gone back-and-forth with restrictions on the import and transit of Ukrainian grain through its territory owing to the impact that it has had on domestic agricultural markets. Poland was a major thoroughfare for Ukrainian grain exports, and disruptions to those trade routes could have made Ukraine more dependent upon maritime transport and thus the Black Sea Grain Initiative. But where one door closed, another opened, as Romania has since declared its intent to facilitate the transport of 60 percent of Ukrainian grain through its country.
Meanwhile, Russia has had to take steps to deflect international criticism for scrapping the Black Sea Grain Initiative, namely with the promise of pro bono exports. During the second Russia-Africa summit held in St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin promised to deliver free grain to six African countries: (1) Burkina Faso; (2) Central African Republic; (3) Eritrea; (4) Mali; (5) Somalia; and (6) Zimbabwe. Russian officials have engaged Turkish and Qatari counterparts on how they might accomplish this. This all comes at a cost that could have been avoided had the Kremlin preserved its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
The Hong Kong-flagged container ship JOSEPH SCHULTE proceeds through the corridor established for civilian vessels to/from the Black Sea ports of Ukraine (photo via X @OlKubrakov)
Lessons learned from the Black Sea Grain Initiative
Will the Black Sea Grain Initiative ever come back? Certainly, there are parties in the international community that hope so. However, with alternatives being available and degraded faith that the Russian side will maintain its commitments, there is little impetus for the parties to come back to the agreement. In the meantime, the demise of the Black Sea Grain Initiative reminds practitioners and scholars of three key lessons:
Structural flaws in an agreement can empower parties to operate in bad faith. In this case, the Russian side took advantage of overly broad provisions and the 120-day extension requirement to use as negotiating leverage in the Black Sea agreements.
Conditions in negotiations are ever-changing. The circumstances at each step of the negotiation process had evolved, so the leverage that the Russians believed they had in July 2023 was not what they possessed in the previous rounds of negotiations.
Alternatives to negotiated agreements are critical. The Ukrainian side took steps to create a viable option other than the Black Sea Grain Initiative—an alternative that the Russian side underestimated.
While these are three lessons that may be extrapolated to any negotiation, there is perhaps one more that is important to recall in this case: some negotiated agreements will fail in the long term but still yield benefits while they last. For the 360 days it was in operation, the Black Sea deal enabled 32 million metric tons of food commodities from Ukrainian ports and the delivery of 725,000 tons of humanitarian support via the World Food Programme. In total, food prices across the globe reduced 23% between March 2022 and July 2023. The Black Sea Grain Initiative, although ultimately collapsing, was nevertheless successful in achieving its original aim of mitigating an impending global food security crisis.
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Chronology of Black Sea Grain Initiative implementation
22 July 2022: Representatives from Russia, Türkiye, Ukraine, and the United Nations sign the Black Sea Grain Initiative
26 July: Although its work commenced immediately upon signing of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, the Joint Coordination Center formally launches its operations
1 August: The first vessel departs Odesa under the auspices of the Black Sea Grain Initiative
3 August: The Joint Investigation Team established under the Black Sea Grain Initiative completes its inspection of the first vessel to depart Ukraine laden with food exports
12 September: The Joint Coordination Center publishes its first report, announcing that it has overseen the safe movement of 122 voyages from Ukraine and 144 voyages to Ukraine, enabling the transport of 2.7 million metric tons of grain and other foodstuffs
14 September: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks to Vladimir Putin by phone; the two discuss possible expansion of the Black Sea Grain Initiative to include ammonia exports meant to support fertilizer production
4 October: The Turkish government reports that the amount of grain exported from Ukrainian ports under the Black Sea Grain Initiative has surpassed six million tons
15 October: The Russian government issues its first public threat that it might not extend the Black Sea Grain Initiative
16 October: Ukrainian Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov meets Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar to discuss the Black Sea Grain Initiative
29 October: In response to a Ukrainian attack against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the Kremlin announces that it is suspending its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative
31 October: Turkish Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar speaks with Sergey Shoigu about Russia’s decision to suspend its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative
1 November: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan holds a telephone discussion with Vladimir Putin on the Black Sea Grain Initiative; Russia subsequently resumes its participation, noting that it received written guarantees from Ukraine that its forces will not stage attacks via the grain corridors
11 November: UN and Russian delegates meet in Geneva to negotiate extension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative; Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths and Secretary-General of the UN Conference on Trade and Development Rebeca Grynspan lead the UN delegation, while Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin represents the Russian Federation
17 November: Representatives from Russia, Türkiye, Ukraine, and the United Nations hold quadrilateral negotiations on the Black Sea Grain Initiative in Istanbul, agreeing upon a 120-day extension of the agreement
29 November: The first ship laden with Russian fertilizer sets voyage under the auspices of the expanded Black Sea Grain Initiative discussed between UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Vladimir Putin in September
2 March 2023: At the G20 Foreign Ministers meeting, Sergey Lavrov blames the West for causing a food crisis and blocking full implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative
7 March: Ukraine starts online talks with partners on extending the Black Sea Grain Initiative
8 March: President Volodymyr Zelensky and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres discuss the Black Sea Grain Initiative in Kyiv
13 March: Officials from Russia and the United Nations meet in Geneva to negotiate the extension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative
14 March: The Turkish Ministry of Defense issues a statement welcoming the 60-day extension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative; Russian officials affirm this agreement and state that this extension will go into effect unless there are specific objections raised by any of the four parties
4 April: Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Burak Akçapar discusses implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Vershinin
7 April: Türkiye hosts Russia’s Sergey Lavrov for negotiations, particularly on extending the Black Sea Grain Initiative; Lavrov threatens that Russia will renounce the deal outright if restrictions on Russian exports, banking, and insurance are not lifted
9 April: Poland's Deputy Agriculture Minister states that the country will suspend grain imports from Ukraine until July; this announcement comes amidst domestic protests over the impact that the influx of Ukrainian grain is having on local market prices
13 April: The Russian Foreign Ministry clearly articulates the concessions it seeks in exchange for extending the Black Sea Grain Initiative beyond the 18 May expiry, stating the following: “We confirm our position that without progress on resolving five system problems (reconnecting the Russian Agricultural Bank to SWIFT; resuming supplies of agricultural equipment, spare parts, and services; lifting restrictions on insurance and re-insurance as well as the ban on port access; resuming operation of the Tolyatti-Odesa ammonia pipeline; and unblocking the foreign assets and accounts Russian companies involved in producing and transporting food and fertilizers) there can be no talk of extending furth the Black Sea Initiative after May 18.”
24 April: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres hands Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a letter addressed to Vladimir Putin with ideas on how to expand implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative
28 April: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres discusses the Black Sea Grain Initiative with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, including ways to guarantee the improvement, expansion, and extension of the Black Sea Initiative (the Ukraine side of the agreement) and the improvement of the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Russian Federation and the United Nations and Republic of Türkiye (the Russian side of the agreement)
5 May: Officials from Ukraine, Türkiye, Russia, and the UN meet in Istanbul for Black Sea Grain Initiative negotiations; they deliberate technical matters ahead of the Deputy Minister-level meeting scheduled to take place the following week
10 May: Deputy Minister-level representatives from Russia, Türkiye, and Ukraine begin negotiations in Istanbul to extend the Black Sea Grain Initiative; Turkish officials indicate that (1) they are pursuing an extension of at least 60 days and (2) the Turkish state-owned Ziraat Bank may be ready to execute transactions for sales of Russian grain and fertilizers to satisfy the Kremlin’s demands for reconnecting the Russian Agricultural Bank to the SWIFT system
17 May: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres confirms that Russia has agreed to extend the Black Sea Grain Initiative for another 60 days
5 July: The Russian Foreign Ministry expresses that it will not accept compromises on its conditions for extending the Black Sea Grain Initiative past its 17 July expiry, rejecting the proposal to restart the Tolyatti-Odesa pipeline (claiming that Ukrainian forces have sabotaged it) and the proposal for creating a subsidiary of Rosselkhozbank to connect to SWIFT
9 July: Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan speaks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over the phone; there was no official readout, but diplomatic sources report that the two deliberated the Black Sea Grain Initiative
12 July: UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric announces that a letter from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was delivered to Vladimir Putin explaining the steps that the UN had taken to keep the Black Sea Grain Initiative alive beyond its 17 July expiry
13 July: Negotiations ramp up as the Black Sea Grain Initiative nears the 17 July expiry; the main sticking point for this round of negotiations is payments to Russia through the Russian Agricultural Bank
17 July: Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov announces that Russia has terminated its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative
18 July: The Russian Defense Ministry announces that starting on 20 July, it will consider all ships crossing the Black Sea to Ukraine to be military-purpose and therefore legitimate targets; meanwhile, Vladimir Putin signals that Russia is willing to return to the Black Sea Grain Initiative if all obligations to Russia under the deal are met
19 July: Russian forces execute missile strikes against known grain storage facilities in Odesa, one of the ports guaranteed safety under the Black Sea Grain Initiative; the U.S. and Ukraine begin discussions on measures to implement grain exports through the Black Sea without Russian participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative
22 July: President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg about the Black Sea Grain Initiative; the two reportedly discuss measures aimed at unblocking the flow of grain from Ukrainian ports and for guaranteeing safe passage into the future
27 July: During the 2nd Russia-Africa Summit, Vladimir Putin promises free grain to six African countries following the termination of the Black Sea Grain Initiative
2 August: Türkiye's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks with Vladimir Putin on a range of topics during a phone conversation, including the need for Russia to return to the Black Sea grain deal; meanwhile, South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor asserts that her government is actively working to convince Russia to return to the Black Sea Grain Initiative
10 August: The Ukrainian Navy announces the opening of temporary corridors in the Black Sea for merchant vessels sailing to and from the ports of Chornomorsk, Odesa, and Yuzhne.
16 August: The first civilian vessel sails from Odesa since the Russian termination of its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative
18 August: Romanian Prime Minister Marvel Ciolacu states that his government hopes that around 60% of Ukrainian grain exports could transit through Romanian territory following Russia’s unilateral termination of its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative
23 August: In his speech at the BRICS Summit, Vladimir Putin states that Russia is willing to return to the Black Sea Grain Initiative if other parties fulfill their obligations
26 August: A second civilian vessel departs Odesa for transit through the temporary Black Sea corridor
1 September: Ukraine's Ministry of Infrastructure announces that two merchant vessels have departed Pivdennyi Port in Odesa Oblast via the temporary Black Sea corridor with security guarantees from the Ukrainian Navy
3 September: Presidents Volodymyr Zelensky and Emmanuel Macron speak on the phone; among other things, the two leaders discuss protection of the grain corridors following the Russian termination of the Black Sea Grain Initiative
4 September: Presidents Erdoğan and Putin meet in Sochi, where they discuss efforts aimed at reviving the Black Sea Grain Initiative
7 September: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko announces that the Russian and Turkish governments will work together to determine implementation arrangements for the transfer of Russian grain to African nations
26 September: President Erdogan announces that Russia is conducting negotiations on supplies of Russian grain to Africa with Türkiye and Qatar at the foreign minister level
6 October: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko states that there is no chance of the Black Sea Grain Initiative being restored until all Russia’s requirements set out in the UN-Russia Memorandum of Understanding are met in full
Michael MacArthur Bosack is a seasoned international negotiator and the founder of the Parley Policy Initiative. He is the Special Adviser for Government Relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. Michael is a former East-West Center Fellow, a military veteran, and the author of “Negotiate: A Primer for Practitioners.”
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Black Sea Grain Initiative Agreements:
Initiative on the Safe Transportation of Grain and Foodstuffs from Ukrainian Ports
Memorandum of Understanding on facilitating exports of Russian food products and fertilizers