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Turkey, Not The U.S., Leads On Ukrainian Grain Deal

Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and the U.N. successfully negotiated a deal to move grains from war-torn Ukraine. The fact that the U.S. wasn't there when this important agreement was made in Tehran and signed in Istanbul stood out.

United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R)
United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) sit at the start of the signature ceremony of an initiative on the safe transportation of grain and foodstuffs from Ukrainian ports, in Istanbul, on July 22, 2022. - As a first major agreement between the warring parties since the invasion, Ukraine and Russia are expected to sign a deal in Istanbul today to free up the export of grain from Ukrainian ports. The deal has been brokered by the UN and Turkey. (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)

Foggy Bottom types must be wincing. America, the diplomatic superpower, has been absent from a deal that promises Ukrainian grain to flow through Black Sea ports to the world's hungry. The agreement that has been signed by Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and the United Nations chief in Istanbul on Friday, brings hope that the world's problems can be solved through negotiation and conversation.

All credit should go to Turkey for its leadership, an unlikely role for it to play given that Western heavyweights failed to budge the needle. The essence of the deal was worked out in an unlikely place, Tehran, where President Putin met last week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Iranian Supreme Leader. Meanwhile, Erdogan is also pleading with the two to support Turkey's incursion into Syria, which will be a full-fledged assault on America's Kurdish allies.

Strangely, the European Union is not a party to the latest agreement. America, at least, recognized the problem and provided assurances for the agreement to materialize. In April, long before Russia's blockade created a global crisis, Treasury secretary Janet Yellen appeared open to going easy on sanctions to authorize "essential humanitarian and related activities that benefit people around the world – ensuring the availability of basic foodstuffs and agricultural commodities." Translation: Ships, insurance companies, and other logistical companies involved with grain transfers would not be subject to American sanctions.

Russia's objections were two-fold. Ukraine has laden the shipping lanes near its coast with mines as a defensive measure against the Russian Navy, so safe passage of grain ships would be questionable. When ships returned to the Black Sea ports for subsequent hauls, Russia was concerned that the West could smuggle weapons to Ukraine on board.

The agreement solves these problems on paper, although whether it can sustain the stresses of war and conflict remains to be seen. Ukrainian Coast Guard personnel would steer grain ships around the mines, leaving the mines intact. Once out in the open sea, international crews would take the vessels to their destinations. On the return, Turkey, which controls the strait that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and beyond, would oversee inspections of each ship to ensure no weapons are on board, along with U.N., Ukrainian and Russian officials.

Earlier, the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board had proposed that U.S. or NATO warships could escort Ukrainian merchant vessels out of the ports to international waters. The proposal, however, was ignored by the Biden administration.

What must enrage the trio of Biden's policy advisers - Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Victoria Nuland, senior diplomat - is that it was Turkey, of all nations, that helped clinch the deal.

Turkey has been at the center of the world's battles, going back to the Ottoman Empire and World War I. As a NATO member for nearly 70 years, it has quietly aided and abetted western allies. Turkey has been at the receiving end of the war in Syria, accommodating over 3.5 million refugees within its borders. This resettlement has been, to date, the world's largest, and Europe primarily owes Turkey a lot of gratitude because most of these refugees would have preferred to migrate to EU countries. Turkey's geographical location as the bridge from Europe to the Middle East gives it additional heft. As the only Muslim-majority country in the NATO alliance, Turkey shares borders with some of the world's most volatile countries, including Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

But what has irked American administrations recently is that Turkey also maintains close relationships with Russia. When the U.S. refused to sell Patriot missile technology to Turkey, Erdogan signed a deal with Russia to buy its advanced S400 missile battery technology. The agreement infuriated the U.S., which immediately issued an order to stop deliveries to Turkey of its advanced F-35 military aircraft, fearing that Russian engineers working on S400 systems could easily steal F-35 technology. Turkey thumbed its nose at U.S. sanctions anyway and received its first S400 system in 2019.

So, what's in the deal for Russia? Not much economic gain because Russian fertilizer and agriculture are already exempt from European sanctions. But Putin scores several points with the anti-Western alliance that is slowly strengthening and has either been neutral in the war or openly supportive of Russia. Most countries in the Horn of Africa do not share the same sense of righteous outrage that the United States and Europe do with the Russian aggression. These nations are more concerned about existential threats such as famine and disease.

Putin also scores with liberals in Europe who, terribly upset at his actions in Ukraine, can also see that this deal can help millions in the world's poorest populations. The risk that Ukrainian grain would go bad if not quickly shipped and allowing it to rot in Ukrainian silos rather than have them reach those that need it the most would have been a diplomatic albatross. Putin's strategy has always been to break Europe's resolve. With cracks already appearing with Boris Johnson's and Mario Draghi's exits, every good-faith move works in his favor.

It must enrage Biden's policy advisers even more that all of this is happening with America not even at the table.


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