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A nation must think before it acts.
The Ukraine grain deal, formally known as the Black Sea Grain Initiative, is a joint agreement by Russia, Ukraine, and Türkiye that promises a safe Black Sea corridor for commercial ships to export grains from Ukraine under the supervision of the United Nations. When the deal was signed on July 22 in Istanbul, UN Secretary-General António Guterres praised it as “a beacon of hope.” This so-called beacon shut its light off on Oct. 29 when Russia suspended its commitment after accusing Ukraine of a drone attack on its Black Sea Fleet ships. Though Russia rejoined the agreement days later and has since agreed with Ukraine to renew the deal, the possibility of a future pull-out lingers like a haze. However, for those who had never really believed the deal was such a bright beacon, Russia’s October suspension of the deal was less surprising. The Baltic countries — Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — have long warned about the risks of cooperation with Russia. While the grain deal illustrates a case for working with Russia — though marked by potential failure — the alarm bells sounded by the Baltic states may in fact compel Russia to better comply with such agreements.
Public discussions and negotiations over the grain deal appeared in May, as the world worried about global food insecurity exacerbated by Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports. Ukraine is a major global exporter of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, supplying 40 percent of the World Food Program’s wheat supplies, for example. While multiple plans were proposed to export grain from Ukrainian ports, the agreed upon deal was brokered by Türkiye and the UN. It required Ukraine to demine its ports and Russia to ensure the safety of commercial grain ships. At the time, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis proposed a plan that would have instead sidelined Russia. Landsbergis called for the West to provide naval escort protection for Ukraine to export their own grain when he met with and received support from then-UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss. Such a plan would have required Ukraine’s western partners to offer naval forces, but would have remained a non-military humanitarian mission. Russia was not considered an actor in Landsbergis’ plan at all; in fact, after talking with Landsbergis, Truss said that providing long-range weapons to Ukraine was needed to protect their ports from Russian attacks. The assertion that Russia should not be a partner has been consistent in Lithuania’s diplomatic posture.
After Russia announced the suspension of the extant grain deal in October, Landsbergis again called for the West to be wary of Russia: “Judging by past performance and knowing that he is open to using starvation as a weapon, it seems likely that Putin will again try to blackmail the world by blockading Ukraine’s grain this winter. We simply cannot trust the occupier that is stealing Ukraine’s grain to be honest in negotiations over exporting Ukraine’s grain.” Landsbergis, a leading political figure in Lithuania’s center-right Homeland Union, has consistently been at the frontier of the West-Russia confrontation.
Estonia also rang alarm bells against cooperating with Russia. Aligned with Lithuania’s perspective, Estonian President Alar Karis backed Mr. Landsbergis’ naval coalition plan in May. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has also been firm on Russia, saying only a military victory — not a diplomatic one — should end the war. Like Lithuania, Estonia has been skeptical of the negotiated deal. Just two days after the grain deal was signed, the Estonian top diplomat Urmas Reinsalu and minister of defense Hanno Pevkur both warned that this agreement could be a potential threat. Both politicians doubted Russia’s compliance and worried that the West might have “pseudo-hopes” of achieving peace by diplomatic means. Their worries were not baseless, and Russia’s temporary withdrawal from the deal corroborated their concerns, though it might not be so clear that achieving peace by engaging with Russia diplomatically is impossible or unrealistic.
The same attitude was reflected by Latvia when the parliament declared Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, citing, among other reasons, Russia’s missile attack on the Odesa port one day after signing the grain deal. MPs condemned Russia’s contempt for its commitments to stabilizing global food security. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs has also warned that engaging the Kremlin in diplomacy is risky. While he said the international community should support negotiations if both Kyiv and Moscow agreed to engage, Rinkēvičs added, “But at the same time, if an agreement is signed that is a half measure and does not include some sort of strict control over its implementation, then I no longer have any illusions the Russian Federation would abide by it.” All the three Baltic states have been critical of cooperation with Russia and highly skeptical of Russian compliance. They all doubted the effectiveness of the UN-brokered grain deal, and they warned that Russia would not comply. These warnings still have pragmatic value.
Landsbergis’ plan offered a solution in which Russia’s engagement was not needed — not an ideal scenario for a Kremlin that fears being sidelined. One main reason that Russia rejoined the current grain deal was that Türkiye, Ukraine, and the UN were committed to continuing the agreement even without Russia. As countries propose alternative plans that do not need the involvement of Russia, the risk of disengagement could push Russia to comply with its international commitments. In this example, the Kremlin was afraid the Black Sea corridor would provide Ukraine an additional opportunity to import arms and ammunition, so it required the UN to inspect the grain ships as part of Russian demand in the agreement. If, alternatively, Western naval ships guarded a grain export corridor without Russia, the Kremlin would lose such leverage.
The ultimate value of the hawkish posture of the Baltic states does not lie in rejecting negotiations and cooperations with Russia. It may actually compel Russia to behave better in negotiations and cooperations. Though the Baltic states are comparatively weak, their memberships in NATO and the EU can influence the strategies of these two powerful organizations vis-à-vis Russia. This does not necessarily mean that the West will not pursue negotiating with Russia; diplomatically engaging with Russia may still be necessary and constructive. The current Black Sea Grain Initiative has been quite effective in general, but Baltic pressure on Russia may continue to serve as an effective backup plan. As the West is divided over the path of future interaction with Russia, the hawkish attitudes will continue to influence both sides of the negotiation table.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.