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Western countries slam Russia's decision to exit Black Sea grain deal

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The US and EU have criticized Russia’s decision to pull the plug on a major wartime deal that has unblocked the passage of Ukrainian grain via the Black Sea, with Washington calling it a “purely outrageous” action that risked increasing starvation.

Moscow on Saturday suspended its participation in the UN-backed deal with Kyiv, linking its decision to an attack earlier that day on ships in the port of Sevastopol in the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine called this a “false excuse”.

“The United States regrets Russia’s suspension of its participation in the operations of the UN-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative. We urge all parties to keep this essential, life-saving Initiative functioning,” US secretary of state Antony Blinken said in a statement.

The deal, he said, had already allowed 9mn metric tons of food products to be exported. It had also succeeded in bringing down global food prices that were sent soaring by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affair chief, called on Russia to reverse its decision, saying it “puts at risks the main export route of much needed grain and fertilizers to address the global food crisis caused by its war against Ukraine”.

“By suspending its participation in the grain deal on a false pretext of explosions 220km away from the grain corridor, Russia blocks 2mn tons of grain on 176 vessels already at sea — enough to feed over 7mn people,” Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.

Moscow on Sunday defended its actions, with the Russian ambassador to the US arguing that the “truly outrageous” move was Washington’s failure to criticize the attack on Sevastopol, which he described as “reckless”.

The attack, which appears to have targeted Russian warships, comes eight months into Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine.

The Black Sea grain deal, hashed out this summer in Istanbul, had seen Moscow guarantee safe passage for cargo ships carrying grain coming from a string of ports in the south of Ukraine that had previously been blocked by the war.

On Sunday, specialist outlet Agricensus Fastmarkets reported that there was now “panic” in these Ukrainian ports as international vessels already docked and loading there feared they could get trapped now that Moscow had suspended the safe passage corridor.

Ukraine’s president called for a “strong international response” from the UN and G20.

“Russia is doing everything to ensure that millions of Africans, millions of residents of the Middle East and South Asia find themselves in conditions of artificial famine or at least a severe price crisis,” Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an overnight video address.

“Why can a handful of people somewhere in the Kremlin decide whether people in Egypt or Bangladesh will have food on their tables?” he said.

Russia denies that its attack on Ukraine, major global exporter of grain and other food products, caused price rises or exacerbated food shortages.

It has been hinting at its desire to pull out of the deal for some time. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has in recent weeks expressed dissatisfaction with the deal, claiming it was not sending grain to “the poorest countries”.

The UN, however, has not billed the agreement as intended to send grain directly to poorer countries, saying instead that it was supposed to make grain purchases more accessible to all by lowering market prices.

Moreover, the increasing voicing of disapproval has coincided with major military defeats for Russia, and its suspension of the deal comes as a counteroffensive by Kyiv in the southern Kherson region is picking up pace.

“Why is Moscow disrupting the grain deal now? The answer is: Putin needs leverage as things go south for him on the battlefields in Ukraine, so the threat of global food crisis needs to be put back in the Russian toolbox of coercion and blackmail,” wrote Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“However, this audacious attempt to gain leverage may backfire against Moscow,” he added. “The killing of the grain deal will create rifts between Russia and powerful players like Turkey and Saudi Arabia.”

It was countries in the Middle East that pushed Moscow to open up Ukrainian food exports, fearing food crises and possible political upheavals at home.