UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Thursday discussed with European leaders the effect of the war in Ukraine on world food security.
Russia is trying to increase pressure on the West to ease sanctions in exchange for the further extension of a grain deal that is crucial for the world's food security.
Little transpired of the discussions between Mr Guterres and EU presidents, but European diplomats told The National that they believe the best strategy is not giving in to what they called Russian "blackmail."
On arrival in Brussels, where he was invited as a guest at a meeting of the EU's 27 leaders, Mr Guterres said that he would "exchange views" on the global effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year.
The war has heightened food insecurity in countries that are dependent on Russian and Ukrainian agricultural exports.
A UN statement said that Mr Guterres's meeting with EU leaders "offered a timely opportunity to discuss pressing global matters, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its far-reaching consequences, the climate emergency and growing global inequalities".
The UN and Turkey last July brokered a 120-day deal called the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which ensured the safe export of Ukrainian grain.
Russia in November agreed to a first renewal of the agreement. But last week, Moscow unexpectedly said it only agreed to a 60-day renewal, accusing the West of not co-operating with the UN to implement a deal to allow its own agricultural exports.
The US and European leaders have rejected such accusations, saying they made exemptions for Russia's grain and fertiliser exports so as not to be accused of using food security as weapon.
Data shows that Russian agricultural exports mostly increased last year.
Speaking as he arrived in Brussels, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the bloc wanted "to ensure that Russia's horrible war of aggression against Ukraine would not result in food insecurity in the world".
"We need to ensure that grain exports, for example from Ukraine, can continue," Mr Scholz said.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said that Russia had 18 ports that it could use for its exports and that only 13 of 300 Russian banks had sanction imposed on them.
Watering down sanctions would be "very wrong", said Ms Kallas, one of Europe's most outspoken supporters of Ukraine.
"The aggressor only understands strength. If we weaken the sanctions, we go with their narrative and we shouldn't do that."
A European diplomat echoed her views, saying Russia was "pulling strings to see at what point we break".
"We must stay together, stay strong," they said. "With Russia it only works when we don't budge."
They referred to the EU's ability to rapidly wean itself away from Russian energy imports after the start of the war.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Monday laid out its conditions for a further extension of the grain deal.
They include the restoration of access to the Swift financial messaging system for Russian state-owned agriculture-focused bank Rosselkhozbank, a resumption of farm machinery supplies, and the unblocking of foreign assets and accounts held by Russian agricultural companies.
But Moscow also seems to be aware that blocking the Black Sea grain initiative would probably be highly unpopular among African countries that import Ukrainian agricultural products.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told a Russia-Africa parliamentary conference in Moscow on Monday that if the deal is not renewed, his country could supply free grain to “especially needy African countries”.
So far, exports under the grain deal have been shipped under commercial agreements.
Food security remains high on the EU's agenda. Another diplomat said the bloc's 27 countries have been discussing for the past weeks an exemption for Belarusian fertiliser exports that had sanctions imposed in 2021.
Belarus is a key Russian ally and an important producer of potash. Exports fell by 70 per cent in 2022 after sanctions were further tightened, according to news website Politico.
But some countries, including Lithuania, opposed such exemptions, saying the Belarusian fertiliser industry is directly linked to its leader, Alexander Lukashenko.
Instead, they say that Brussels should work with partners and fertiliser producers such as Canada to boost their exports.
Diplomats expect negotiations to continue over the next weeks.