David Harland, HD’s Executive Director, looks back at the Black Sea Initiative, at the next steps after its collapse and at how third parties affected by conflicts can help find the road to reconciliation.

The Russia-Ukraine grain deals are over, at least for now.

The Black Sea Initiative expired on Tuesday, 17 July. On Wednesday, Russian missiles struck the Ukrainian grain warehouses and port facilities used to load the grain for export, reportedly destroying some 60,000 tons of Ukrainian grain bound for China.

Russia then said any vessel moving towards Ukraine’s Black Sea ports will be treated as “hostile” – effectively re-establishing the full blockade it announced the day the war began in February 2022. Global wheat prices spiked on the news.  

There will be pressure on Russia to reverse course. African leaders are due to meet President Putin in St Petersburg at the end of July and, with African countries hardest hit by the global food crisis, there will be calls for Russia to re-join the agreement.

There will also be pressure from Türkiye. Türkiye has a huge financial stake in the deal, so it, too, will want to see ships operating from Ukraine’s ports again. It won’t be easy for Putin to ignore this, as Türkiye has considerable leverage over both Russia and Ukraine. 

But it will be hard for Russia to walk back. Having gone this far, Russia will likely propose a Russia-only arrangement, cutting Ukraine out.

When pushed, Moscow may agree to a “small-for-small” agreement under which a limited amount of Ukrainian grain would be shipped by the World Food Programme to people in dire humanitarian need.

But the big deal, under which 33 million tons moved, helping to stabilise global grain prices at a time of crisis, will not be easily revived. For that, new concessions would have to be put on the table by Ukraine or its Western supporters, which does not look likely at the moment. 

How did we get here? Why did it collapse?

The narrow answer is that Russia felt that it wasn’t getting enough for what it gave. Under the original terms of the deal, Russia would ease the naval blockade to allow Ukraine to export its grain across the Black Sea and, in return, the United Nations would facilitate Russia’s own agricultural exports.

Russia’s grain exports were never much of a problem, as they were not under sanctions anyway. But fertiliser exports from Russia and Belarus were an issue and, even more, the financial sanctions that had pushed up the cost of Russia’s export business were a problem.

When negotiations on ammonia exports failed, and when there was no agreement on Russia’s demand that the Russian Agricultural Bank be reconnected to the SWIFT bank messaging system, Moscow pulled the plug. It’s not irreversible, but it doesn’t look good.

The real questions, however, may be why the deal ever worked in the first place, and whether anything like that could ever be done again.

The unusual feature of the Russia-Ukraine grain deal is that it was constructed by third parties on behalf of third parties, in this case the hundreds of millions of people around the world who had already been living with the global food crisis and who had quickly become collateral damage of Russia’s invasion as grain prices soared. 

Much mediation involves getting two sides to the table, and then helping those parties to find a middle ground between their maximalist positions, possibly assisted by so-called groups of friends.

Contact first. Then trust-building. Then compromise and agreement, possibly aided by helpful outsiders. This is the light version of mediation often referred to as “facilitation”.

The grain deal, however, was completely different. It worked from the outside in.

Both the idea – the structure of the deal – and a coalition to support that idea, were brought from the outside. The parties didn’t seek it, and would probably never have agreed if simply convened to discuss it. 

The day after the invasion, world wheat prices rose some 20% with potentially devastating consequences for many of the world’s poorest people. HD Senior Advisor Richard Wilcox, then on mission in Kenya, saw the impact the war was having and started exploring the possibility of assembling a global coalition to stabilise the markets. 

Rather than approaching Moscow and Kyiv straight away, HD first worked to understand what deal was possible, and in the interests of both parties, to bring the grain prices down, and then to find a wider base of support.

We did the technical work on the ground on what was possible. And, in parallel, we approached the World Trade Organization and then, through the WTO, the leadership of the African Union, to find out whether the countries most affected by the crisis might be willing to work together to support an initiative like this.

The response was unexpectedly positive and, by late March, I passed a concept note to the UN Secretary-General.

It was only in April, with the idea of a possible grain deal already quite far advanced, that HD engaged Kyiv and Moscow, to try to prepare the ground for visits by UN and African Union leaders. When Richard and I travelled with our colleague Maryna Domushkina to Kyiv by train, outbound trains were still overloaded with refugees. 

The Ukrainian government was initially sceptical of the idea of a deal on grain.

They were not sure if they would be able to manage the farm-to-port transport with the Russians still advancing, if they would have the workforce given their national defence needs, if the port facilities would be viable with Russian forces standing on the outskirts of Mykolaiv, and if they could manage the navigation through the sea-mines around their harbours.

HD’s Ukraine team, now reinforced with technical expertise on all this, worked to show that it was all viable. The Ukrainians came around and also found a political message that worked for them: Despite the horrors of the invasion, Ukraine was willing and able to play its role in the global grain markets. 

The UN Secretary-General’s visit to Moscow and Kyiv later that month showed that the basic approach of working first from the outside was right. Although they couldn’t agree on almost anything else, the two presidents saw that, given the level of attention from countries affected by food prices, they needed to move. African Union Chairperson Macky Sall made his own visit to Moscow, and found the same thing.

The Secretary-General pushed hard on turning that political equation into a real deal. He established two UN teams – one to negotiate the terms of the movements across the Black Sea, and the other to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with Russia on what it would get in return.

HD’s David Gorman joined the first team and Richard Wilcox joined the second. These teams carried the talks through to the signing of parallel agreements in Istanbul in July. The ships then began to move in early August – first at a trickle and then, by autumn, a flood. World grain prices came back to pre-war levels.

It worked, among other things, because there was an idea that had solid backing from a coalition of countries important to both parties. The deal had to make sense to each party on its merits, but the fact that a phalanx of potentially important third countries wanted it to happen was a big factor.

Could it ever be repeated? Is it a model for other negotiations?

Climate negotiations are structurally similar in some ways. There are two countries – China and the United States – which produce the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions, and a huge array of countries which feel the negative impact of China and the US not doing enough to limit their emissions.

Arms control, too, has some structural similarities: The nuclear-weapons states are rebuilding their arsenals, but the risks associated with that build-up are shared with states with no nuclear weapons.

Similarly for some of the quiet talks going on about cyber warfare and, indeed, for all other negotiations in which there are major costs to be carried by non-parties, like women in Afghanistan or civilians in Sudan. 

Will the logic of outside-in – that is, mobilising affected third parties – lead to the revival of the grain deals, or serve as an example for other processes?

The answer, unfortunately, is that we cannot be sure. There are too many other factors at play.

A new “big-for-big” deal for Ukraine is still possible. Ukraine and the West control some things that Russia wants, particularly in terms of financial sanctions, and also ammonia exports. And Russia, however cruelly, has some things that Ukraine wants, especially prisoners and stolen children.

So, a new deal is possible, but far from certain. 

While these things are uncertain, what is for sure is that the Russia-Ukraine grain deal has shown us again the power of ideas in mediation. And the power, when properly harnessed, of a coalition of the victims.

In a cynical world of transactional deals, it’s a glimmer of hope which we should pursue – in Ukraine and beyond.