A scorching summer is turning up the heat on Turkey's Black Sea tango

Brokering the grain deal was a win for Erdogan last year, but Moscow appears to be no longer on the same page

Commercial ships including vessels that are part of Black Sea grain deal wait to pass the Bosphorus Strait off Istanbul. Reuters
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Humanity just sweated through the hottest week ever recorded, according to the UN, which expects the heat wave to continue into next year. Athens shut the Acropolis to save tourists from exhaustion, Phoenix paramedics are spending July infusing overheated locals with ice-cold saline, Italy issued extreme health warnings for 16 cities and wildfires are raging across Canada, Greece, Spain, and beyond.

The dial may soon be turned up even further for many after Russia pulled out of its grain deal with Ukraine. Normally this might not be cause for immediate concern, but as many as 150 million more people are going hungry today than a few years ago, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The FAO blamed the pandemic, climate change-induced weather events and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Climate change, conflict, and economic instability are pushing those on the margins even further from safety,” says FAO Director General Qu Dongyu.

The Ukraine war reduced this year’s global wheat exports by about 11 million tonnes. That was before the grain deal expired on Monday, just as Nigeria – Africa’s most populous state, with more than 200 million people – declared an inflation-driven food security emergency. Somalia, Africa’s second-most populous country, is again on the verge of famine. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme says its funding is down a third this year.

With Turkey’s delicate geopolitical two-step, leaning one way always risks blowback

Turkey is not facing a food emergency, but the cost of staples has spiked in the past few years due to record levels of inflation and the declining lira. With his country facing a record current account deficit of nearly $38 billion, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Riyadh, Doha and Abu Dhabi this week to deepen economic ties and seal major trade and investment deals with Gulf allies. Turkey hopes to sign several deals like the one Saudi Arabia agreed to on Monday.

His trip follows a flurry of West-friendly gestures. Last week, Mr Erdogan welcomed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Istanbul. Turkey’s leader repeated his support for Ukraine joining Nato and handed over five Azov Battalion commanders. The next day, after Mr Erdogan drew applause in Vilnius for approving Sweden’s bid to join Nato, observers hailed a new era in Turkey-West amity, hoping for movement on F-16s and EU membership.

A top Russian defence official described Ankara’s moves as a “stab in the back”, probably because they go against Moscow’s invasion justifications.

The Kremlin regularly blames Nato’s eastward expansion for its security concerns and often refers to nationalist Azov fighters when it talks of “eradicating Ukrainian Nazism”. Ending grain deal extension talks may have been Moscow’s way of showing Ankara its disapproval. Turkey is the world’s leading exporter of flour and one of the main beneficiaries of the grain deal, according to analyst Michael Tanchum. Brokering the deal was also a feather in Mr Erdogan’s cap as a statesman.

Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin may be unwilling to go much further in punishing Ankara. Turkish ports and tourist hotspots have provided a safe haven for sanctioned Russians and Moscow has promised to help Turkey become a regional gas hub.

Still, pulling out of the grain deal seems to align with the Kremlin’s desire to show strength along the Black Sea. After Ukraine’s attack on the Kerch Bridge early on Monday, Russian authorities vowed to make the cities of Odesa and Mykolaiv Russian, stop supplying Ukraine with Russian gas, and cut it off entirely from the Black Sea.

Ukraine’s control of Snake Island means it could, with Turkish naval support, continue shipping grain without Russian involvement. Grain ships would face the risk of a Russian attack, but if Turkey and Ukraine were to succeed, it would be a coup for Ukraine’s allies and another stumble for the Kremlin following the Wagner Group rebellion.

Moscow’s view is that the grain deal favours Ukraine because it fails to lift sanctions barring the international sale of Russian agricultural products. Only once Russia is able to export grain and fertiliser will Moscow re-enter the deal, an official said on Monday.

In response, David Miliband, chief executive of London-based aid group International Rescue Committee, warned of a looming famine, adding that the Russian pull-out “risks holding global food security at ransom”. The record-breaking heat across much of the world only makes matters more dire.

How long will Russia hold out, and will talks run hot next month when Mr Putin visits Mr Erdogan in Turkey? Hopefully cooler heads will prevail. But in the wake of the Azov prisoner release, and with Ankara voicing support for Ukraine’s Nato membership while building a drone factory in Ukraine, we might prepare for heated negotiations.

Published: July 18, 2023, 4:15 PM