In the end, Vladimir Putin backed down. Faced with blocking ships carrying grain from Ukraine or tacitly admitting that his threats to do so had been a bluff, the Kremlin leader opted not to rekindle a global food crisis.
Russia’s exit from the deal that allowed exports of grain from Ukraine through the Black Sea was weeks in the making. Russia had threatened to do so after an explosion rocked the Crimea Bridge in October, and again after the drone attack on its Black Sea fleet last week.
But once Russia finally suspended the deal, it quickly became clear that Moscow had no plan. When Putin committed a humiliating U-turn after consultations with the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the only concessions he could claim were “written guarantees” from Kyiv.
“The Kremlin just fell into a trap itself, from which it did not know how to get out,” wrote Tatiana Stanovaya, the head of the analysis firm R.Politik. “The [grain] deal was suspended, but it is unclear how to stop the export of grain. No way. Only by military means, which was not part of their plans.”
Private promises may have been made to Russia, including guarantees that could help it export its own agricultural goods. Yet the Kremlin’s climbdown largely shows that Putin can be swayed to back down when he meets resistance and defiance. He “knows how to retreat if necessary,” said Stanovaya.
Western leaders may be focused on what convinced the Kremlin to back down when Putin seems to be set on escalation as a way to save face on the battlefield.
Facing a Ukrainian counteroffensive, Russia has launched hundreds of missiles at Ukrainian power plants and other key infrastructure in recent weeks, aiming to plunge Ukrainian cities into the dark and cold and threaten a humanitarian crisis on the verge of winter.
And western leaders have been concerned about Russia’s threats to use all means at its disposal, including tactical nuclear weapons, to secure territory that it had illegally annexed from Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials said the Kremlin’s U-turn was an important lesson to the west about defying the Russian leader.
A Russian blackmailer “is inferior to those who are stronger and know how to clearly state their position,” wrote Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential adviser. “The way to pacify the aggressor lies through a reasonable demonstration of force.”
In this case, Russia’s actions also threatened to anger leaders in Africa and the Middle East with whom Putin has sought to curry diplomatic favour. In an announcement of the deal renewing on Wednesday, Erdoğan said the next shipments of Ukrainian agricultural goods were destined for Somalia, Djibouti and Sudan.
And then there is Erdoğan, a regional rival of Putin’s who has emerged as a major power player in negotiations over the war. Erdoğan also played a leading role in the prisoner exchange in which Russia released key Ukrainian commanders from the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol. Moscow had previously said it was planning to try to possibly execute them at a military tribunal.
As Russia has grown more isolated, diplomatically and economically, Turkey’s influence has clearly increased.
“Mentioned that Ankara could have a final say here but didn’t expect them to have so much influence on Putin,” wrote Andrei Sizov, the head of SovEcon, an agricultural markets research firm. “Really wonder what Erdoğan’s secret is.”
At home, the grain agreement has provoked anger among boosters of the war, who have dismissed the “written guarantees” and, in some cases, accused the government of selling out its soldiers.
“They don’t give a fuck about this war! What matters is money,” wrote the administrators of one popular Telegram account that crowdsources funds and equipment for the Russian military. “That’s how the politicians are thinking. And as to our soldiers who nearly died in the bay in Sevastopol, they don’t give a fuck.”
Pro-Kremlin bloggers and reporters were similarly derisive of the deal. “The card sharp has given written guarantees not to use marked cards,” wrote Alexander Kots, a reporter for the pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda.
Colonel Cassad, an account with more than 800,000 subscribers, said: “Regarding the trust to these ‘Ukrainian guarantees’ … as though it wasn’t enough for there to be eight years of desecrations of the Minsk agreements or the Steinmeier formula.”