Russia agreed to let Ukraine move grain shipments out of its Black Sea ports because it faced growing global condemnation over its blockade, a senior U.S. diplomat said Friday.
Asked about the U.N.-backed deal signed by Russia and Ukraine on Friday to resume grain exports through the Black Sea, Victoria Nuland, State Department under secretary for political affairs, said Moscow recognized its stance risked further isolation and alienating countries outside of Europe and North America.
“This came together because I think Russia ultimately felt the hot breath of global opprobrium,” Nuland said at the Aspen Security Forum.
Russia has blamed the global food crisis on Ukraine and NATO, but that argument was losing traction among developing countries that rely heavily on grain from Ukraine, according to Nuland.
“It was losing support,” she said.
Russia has had to turn to Iran and North Korea recently for assistance, seeking drones from Tehran and workers from Pyongyang, reflecting its international isolation, according to Nuland.
“Putin has to go ask for favors from the Iranians,” she said, “and he’s asking the North Koreans to come to Ukraine.”
“So with friends like that, they had to make some moves, I think.”
After invading Ukraine on Feb. 24, Russian ships have imposed a de facto blockade on Ukraine’s ports. That has triggered a food crisis around the world, sending food prices soaring, particularly in developing countries in Africa and the Middle East that depend on grain shipments from Ukraine.
Under the deal signed Friday in Istanbul, Russia and Ukraine agreed to a maritime “humanitarian corridor” free of naval ships, warplanes or drones that would allow cargo ships with grain and other food to move out of Ukrainian ports through the Black Sea. Tens of millions of tons of grain have been stuck in Ukraine due to Russia’s invasion.
The deal allows inspection teams from all parties to search ships at the entry and exit of the Bosporus to ensure there are no weapons or troops on board.
Under the agreement, Russia likely will be able to revive its own exports of grain and fertilizer through the Black Sea.
U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia have not banned food exports or targeted Russian fertilizer, but many shipping and insurance companies have chosen not to do business with Moscow in the wake of the February invasion.
That also may have played a role in Russia’s calculation, as “it was hard for them to get shippers and insurers and others to move their grain,” Nuland said. “So they also need the money, given what else we’re doing to them.”
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres hailed the grain deal as a “beacon of hope” that would bring relief to hungry people around the world.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “The world’s hungry cannot wait, and we expect the implementation of today’s deal to commence swiftly and proceed without interruption or interference.”
The White House on Friday welcomed the agreement but said the key now was for the agreement to be carried out.
“We’re hopeful that this deal is going to make a difference,” said John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the White House National Security Council.
But the U.S. remained “clear-eyed” and “we’re going to be watching very, very closely” to see if Russia abides by its commitments, Kirby said.