In the first months of all-out war, Kotenko had to stockpile his harvest: grain, sunflower oil and tomatoes. With ports closed and road transport expensive, the market collapsed. In July 2022, Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government signed a UN-brokered deal with Moscow to resume shipments to international destinations including Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The Black Sea grain corridor worked. Kotenko was able to sell his crop to a commodities merchant, albeit at a low price. By the end of last week, 881 Ukrainian vessels had set off from Odesa and the ports of Pivdenny and Chornomorsk along the coast. They carried more than 27.5m tonnes of agricultural products. Much of it went to the EU.
The Kremlin has voiced dissatisfaction with the deal. It has threatened to revoke it and last month said it would only accept a 60-day extension, instead of the previous 120-day rollover. During a visit to Turkey, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, complained that the west was hampering the export of Russian grain and fertiliser, and said the Kremlin might make its own bilateral deals.
Kyiv, meanwhile, accuses Moscow of sabotage. Russian, Turkish and UN inspectors check each cargo. Kyiv says the Russians deliberately frustrate the process, knocking off in the early afternoon and finding excuses to delay the work. On Tuesday, no vessels were cleared, after Russia scrubbed out the names of three ships submitted by the Ukrainian side as they returned home.
Ukraine’s deputy infrastructure minister for seaports and maritime, Yurii Vaskov, described the situation as critical. “Russia is violating the conditions of the Black Sea grain initiative. They decided to change the plans of Ukrainian ports. This is unacceptable,” he said. The Kremlin was ratcheting up the pressure because it wanted the west to drop sanctions on its agricultural sector, he said.
Vaskov warned that if the deal collapsed, global food prices would rise by 15%. More than half of Ukraine’s grain exports – 6-7m tonnes a month – went by sea, he said. On Tuesday, the UN said it was talking intensively to the parties involved. “It is in everyone’s interests to keep the initiative going,” it stressed, saying it benefited “millions of vulnerable and low-income households around the world”.
Fifty Ukrainian vessels are in an inbound queue. “The Russians think they are the boss in this situation. They believe themselves to be a superior race. They are not,” Kotenko said, describing Putin as “Russia’s Hitler”. He added: “Russia wants us to be slaves. We stopped being slaves in 1991 when Ukraine split from the Soviet Union. Now Putin wants us back in a new USSR. We are fighting against Russian fascism here.”