Recep Tayyip Erdogan is once again using Turkey’s geopolitical position for his own ends, this time dictating grain shipments from Ukraine through the Black Sea. Turkish customs authorities detained a Russian cargo ship carrying Ukrainian wheat on Sunday, following a request of Kyiv.
The Russian cargo ship Zhibek Zholy left the south-eastern port of Berdyansk over the weekend carrying 7,000 tons of grain, worth about £1.75 million. The Russian-appointed head of the occupied region had hailed it as the first commercial ship to leave a Ukrainian port after months of war. He said this would take desperately-needed supplies to friendly countries, according to Politico. The reality is, of course, that the shipment is a provocative move from Russia given it isn’t Moscow’s grain.
All commercial shipments of Ukrainian food products through the Black Sea have been stopped since the invasion began. As a result, a global food emergency is looming. Ukraine and Russia together supply some 40 per cent of African wheat demand. As a result of the war, grain prices have shot up on world markets, from around $8 a bushel before the invasion to a peak of over $14 (although prices have since fallen back down).
As long as the war continues, commercial shipping through the Black Sea is unlikely to resume without assurances of safe passage. The waterways have been mined, endangering ships and their crew. Turkey, Ukraine and Russia had been in negotiations with the UN to allow a grain corridor over the past few weeks, which even once agreed will take a month to implement.
The fate of the Zhibek Zholy reveals the Black Sea power balance. Turkey plays a key role in the passage of ships through the Bosporus and is thus a mediator between both Ukraine and Russia over grain exports. Erdogan will not let this opportunity go to waste.
What are Ankara’s options? Turkey could simply keep the cargo, shielding itself from rising prices but frustrating Moscow, or it could redirect grain as part of a wider diplomatic effort. Erdogan said at a press conference on Sunday he would re-export wheat, barley, sunflower oil, and other agricultural products to countries in need.
Ankara will certainly use the cargo to negotiate a price with Russia, Ukraine and the UN. This isn’t the first time Erdogan has used his position as leverage. Turkey got some concessions for giving up its veto against Nato accession talks with Sweden and Finland, while Ankara famously used the Mediterranean migrant crisis to extract funding from Brussels.
Depending on how successful this strategy is, it also could set a precedent for other nations. This morning, for example, the Indian press was openly admiring Turkey’s foreign policy strategy of hedging its bets between Ukraine and Russia. However much western leaders call for principled responses to the war in Ukraine, nations will always act in what they perceive to be their best interests.
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