Russia is pushing a plan to supply grain to Africa and cut Ukraine out of the global market after Moscow’s withdrawal this week from a UN-backed deal, according to three people familiar with the matter.
President Vladimir Putin has proposed a replacement initiative whereby Qatar would pay Moscow to ship Russian grain to Turkey, which would then distribute the crop to “countries in need”, the people said.
Neither Qatar nor Turkey have agreed to the idea, which Moscow has not yet raised to a formal level, they added. Another person familiar with the matter said Qatar was unlikely to back the idea even if it did.
Kyiv and its western backers are also likely to be deeply suspicious of Russia’s offer, which would effectively secure Moscow’s naval blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, which are a vital economic lifeline for the country.
Russia has kept up a fierce bombardment of Ukraine’s port cities since it pulled out of the Black Sea accord brokered by the UN and Turkey that has allowed 33mn tonnes of grain to be exported. Ukraine has described these actions as “an attempt to destroy the ability to supply food to the countries of the global south”.
Russia first floated the idea of supplying grain to Africa last year, the people familiar with the matter said, after it briefly pulled out of the Black Sea deal before rejoining a few days later.
Under that offer, according to a draft memorandum seen by the Financial Times, Russia was to send up to 1mn tonnes of grain to Turkey “on a preferential basis”. Qatar would foot the bill entirely and the grain would be supplied to Turkey to be shipped onwards to Africa.
A Ukrainian diplomat involved in the grain talks said they had seen a “trilateral [memorandum of understanding] between Turkey, Russia and Qatar”, adding that they had “made some effort to stop it”.
Others involved in the grain deal talks said they expected Russia to push its proposal at a summit with African leaders in St Petersburg next week and when Putin visits Turkey in August. “It’s quite a stunt,” one said. “It’s macho, just to show they can.”
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, declined to comment. Qatar declined to comment.
Ankara said on Friday evening that Turkish and Ukrainian presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Volodymyr Zelenskyy discussed the grain deal “in detail” in a call made at the request of the Ukrainian leader.
“President Erdoğan also underscored that Turkey has exerted intense efforts to sustain peace,” Turkey said.
Zelenskyy said in a Telegram message after the call that the two leaders would co-ordinate efforts to restore the operation of the Black Sea grain initiative
“Due to Russia’s actions, the world is once again on the brink of a food crisis. A total of 400mn people in many countries of Africa and Asia are at risk of starvation. Together, we must avert a global food crisis,” he wrote.
Putin said Russia withdrew from the grain deal over the EU’s reluctance to roll back sanctions on payments, shipping and insurance for Moscow’s own agricultural exports. He claimed he would be prepared to rejoin as soon as those conditions were met.
Erdoğan said this week that Russia was still “in favour” of the deal, and called on the west to offer concessions to Putin over the issue.
Ukraine’s backers, however, believe Moscow’s proposal is in effect a way of putting additional pressure on Kyiv while exporting grain from parts of the country occupied by the Russian army, two western diplomats said.
“Last time they were mooting this [idea], we had very strong suspicions that the grain would effectively be grain stolen from Ukraine,” a senior EU official said.
Moscow has publicly framed the idea as an offer of free grain for the poorest countries ahead of the Russia-Africa summit. It has used the grain issue as a wedge to rally sympathy for its position on Ukraine in the global south and create a groundswell of sentiment against western sanctions.
Putin complained this week that western countries were blocking Moscow’s attempts to send free fertiliser to Africa. On grain, he said: “Our country is capable of replacing Ukrainian grain on a commercial and a gratuitous basis,” adding that “continuing the grain deal in its current form had lost all sense”.
However, the exit from the Black Sea agreement has angered some governments in Africa, especially those facing pressure at home stemming from rising food prices since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
Kenya, which is a consumer of Russian grain and fertiliser, said this week that the Russian move was a “stab on the back” that “disproportionately impacts countries” in its region.
Other African leaders are coming under US pressure to condemn Russia on the grain issue and not to travel to St Petersburg, according to African officials. This creates a bind for some as they often need Russian and US assistance on economic and security issues.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Vershinin said on Friday that Moscow “understands African countries’ concerns” about the grain deal collapse, according to state newswire Tass. He said Russia was “working on new routes for supplying grain”, without elaborating.
Additional reporting by Adam Samson in Istanbul and Chris Cook in London