Analysis of the Narrative “From concern for people in need to arms trafficking: How is Russia’s withdrawal from the “Grain Agreement” justified in Serbia?”

Published on:

July 2023

As part of the program Regional Initiative to Combat Disinformation “Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: Exposing Malign Influences through Watchdog Journalism”, we present you a new monthly analyses of fake news and disinformation narratives.

From concern for people in need to arms trafficking: How is Russia’s withdrawal from the “Grain Agreement” justified in Serbia?

In July 2023, Russia withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative. This agreement that allowed the export of grain and other agricultural products from three designated ports in Ukraine and prevented it from becoming a war target. There have also been Russian attacks on port infrastructure and grain warehouses. There have also been Russian attacks on port infrastructure and grain warehouses. These moves threatened the world food supply, and the pro-Russian media in Serbia argued them in different ways: from claims that most of the exports go to rich countries, through non-compliance with aspects of the agreement related to Russian products to the alleged use of the export corridor for military purposes.

Before the war, Ukraine was one of the world’s leading grain exporters and the world’s leading exporter of sunflower oil. The Russian invasion in February 2022 led to a rise in the world price of grain, which had jumped by over 30% by May. In order to stabilize prices, in July of last year, with the mediation of the United Nations and Turkey, an agreement was reached on the establishment of a safe humanitarian corridor in the Black Sea. In one year, over 1,000 ships exported agricultural products from three Ukrainian ports –  Chernomorsk, Odesa and Yuzhny – and the price of grain dropped to pre-war levels by the spring of 2023.

However, after several months of expressing dissatisfaction with the agreement, Russia announced on July 17, 2023, it is suspending participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative. As of early August, Russia’s position remains that it will consider returning to the Black Sea Grain Initiative only when aspects of the agreement it insists on change. In the next few days, the Russian army attacked Odessa, and on that occasion, according to the claims of several sources, the port infrastructure and grain warehouses were also attacked. Representatives of Western countries accused Russia of using food as a weapon and a means of blackmail, while the United Nations appealed to Russia not to withdraw from the agreement.

Three Russian arguments

The text of Russia’s ambassador to Serbia, Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko, published on the front page of the pro-government newspaper Politika on July 27, 2023, contains all the most frequently used arguments of Russia for withdrawing from the agreement. First, it states that part of the agreement on exporting Russian agricultural products and fertilizers has not been implemented. Another argument is that most of the grain exports were sent to countries with a higher income level, including the European Union countries, and not to the least developed countries. Finally, as a third argument, it is stated that “under the guise of the humanitarian corridor” established as part of this initiative, Ukrainian attacks on Russian civilian objects continued.

As the Research-Publishing Center Demostat noted in its analysis, Botsan-Kharchenko’s article is largely based on the text published by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the Russian-African Economic and Humanitarian Forum in St. Petersburg. All three arguments appeared even earlier in Serbia’s pro-government and pro-Russian media.

The most represented of these three arguments in the mentioned media was the one which referred to an allegedly small share of agricultural products exported to underdeveloped countries. On July 22, the pro-government tabloid Informer published an article titled “World in shock! Where does Ukrainian grain actually end up?! The Italian minister spit the truth in the face of the West!” The text quotes the media “RIA Novosti”, which reports the statement of the Italian Minister of Defense Guido Crosetto, who stated that 95% of Ukrainian grain is not delivered to African countries. The pro-government Večernje novosti also published Vladimir Putin’s assessment that the agreement’s primary goal – helping countries in need – has not been implemented.

On the day of Russia’s decision to terminate the implementation of the Black Sea Initiative, the Serbian edition of the Russia Today portal stated that “the export of Ukrainian food products almost immediately began to serve the purely commercial interests of Kyiv and its Western patrons”, emphasizing that more than 70 per cent of exported Ukrainian grains went to high-income countries. On the same day, this media reported in the headline that “the West is in a panic” because of Russia’s decision and that it will affect the countries of the European Union, China and Turkey the most because most of the exports of agricultural products arrived there.

Another widely presented argument in the Serbian media was that the grain agreement was being misused for military purposes. On July 18, both Russia Today and the pro-government portal Republika published a statement by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov that “it is an obvious fact that the Kyiv regime is using the zone designated to serve in favour of the Grain Agreement for military purposes.”

Part of this narrative was the text reported by several media, including Informer, about how the Russian security service (FSB) allegedly found traces of explosives in a cargo ship sailing through the Kerch Strait from Turkey to the port of Rostov-on-Don in Russia to pick up grain. A few days later, the pro-government portal Srbija Danas published an article titled: “DECEPTION OF THE WEST: Both the Grain and Minsk Agreements had the same goal – to arm Ukraine.” It conveyed the statement of Russian expert Denis Baturin that “the grain corridor was used to arm Ukraine and attack Russian territory and Russian civilian facilities.”

And the Ukrainian drone attack on the Crimean Bridge on July 17, which killed two civilians, has become part of the grain agreement narrative. On July 20, the Republika portal reported the claim that the drones were “probably transported by ships carrying grain and at one point launched into the sea.” In response to this attack, the Russian army attacked the ports of Odesa and Mykolaiv in the following days. On that occasion, the infrastructure for the export of agricultural products was also targeted.

The third argument, about non-compliance with the agreement when it comes to Russian products, was also reported in the Serbian media. Thus, for example, in an article dated July 7, the Serbian edition of Russia Today announced that the agreement, which foresees relief for both Russian and Ukrainian grain exports, applies only to the Ukrainian side. The analysis of this portal a day after Russia’s decision to withdraw from the agreement emphasizes that none of what was promised to this country has been fulfilled and that Russia should withdraw from it much earlier.

This same media, a little earlier, published another text about how not all the conditions of the agreement were met, including the inclusion of its state-owned Russian Agricultural Bank in the SWIFT international payment system. The Serbian edition of the Russian media Sputnik also published an article titled “Not a single ship with Russian fertilizer was sent as part of the grain agreement.”

The Srbija Danas portal also wrote on this topic and on, July 20, published an article under the title “THE WHOLE WORLD IS LYING” Putin spoke about the grain export crisis WE SHOWED ENDURANCE, PATIENCE AND TOLERANCE”, which quotes the statement of the Russian president that “no one wanted to fulfil any obligations towards our country”, and that “the West did everything they could to disrupt the agreement”.

Counter-arguments: What are the problematic points in Russian narratives?

In the analysis of the text of the Russian ambassador Botsan-Kharchenko, Demostat cited data from the United Nations, a mediator of the grain agreement, according to which, until the beginning of July 2023, 38.26% of grain was exported to European countries. Most of the exports, therefore, ended up in Asia and Africa, and the single largest export recipient was China, followed by Spain. Thus, Russia’s argument that the “West”, in the sense of the United States and the European Union, primarily benefits from the grain agreement, is incorrect.

The United Nations itself published several announcements and texts with data on the functioning of the Black Sea Grain Initiative on the eve of one year since its establishment. According to one of these texts, the initiative, or “grain agreement”, enabled the export of more than 725,000 tonnes of wheat to the most vulnerable countries such as, Afghanistan, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen, within the framework of the World Food Program (WFP). As stated, in 2023, Ukrainian grain accounted for as much as 80% of this United Nations program, while two years earlier, this share was 50%.

“The Initiative does not stipulate where exports should go. Exports to any country, rich or poor, however, can help to calm global markets and mitigate food price inflation,” the text said, noting that the Food Price Index of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recorded a drop of 23% from March 2022.

Additionally, a press release dated June 30, 2023, stated that the proportion of wheat exported to Least Developed Countries and to sub-Saharan Africa through the Black Sea remains mostly unchanged from pre-war levels. All these data refute Russian narratives that the Black Sea Grain Initiative did not benefit the Least Developed Countries.

The security aspect of the grain initiative was handled by the Joint Coordination Center (JCC) in Istanbul, which consisted of representatives from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations. By mid-June 2023, over 1,000 ships had passed inspection and transported foodstuffs for export from Ukrainian ports. The length of inspections increased over time, and therefore the number of ships inspected per day decreased. There was no convincing evidence that these ships were being used for military purposes, as Russia later accused Ukraine and the West.

Regarding Russia’s claims that parts of the agreement related to the export of its products and fertilizers have not been implemented, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on July 17 that the UN had recently brokered a concrete proposal with the European Commission that would enable a subsidiary of the Russian Agricultural Bank to regain access to SWIFT. This proposal, as stated by Guterres, was not accepted. In this speech, he expressed deep regret for Russia’s withdrawal from the grain agreement and stated that it will endanger people who are in need. Earlier, the Secretary General admitted that, so far, fertilizers and ammonia have not been exported within the initiative, which represents one of Russia’s legitimate criticisms.

As Martin Griffiths, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, assessed on July 21 that the spike in grain prices since Russia quit a deal allowing the safe Black Sea export of Ukraine grain “potentially threatens hunger and worse for millions of people”. The representative of the European Union at the United Nations stated that the EU remains open to considering a decision on including part of the operations of the Russian Agricultural Bank in the SWIFT system. It is currently difficult to assess whether the renewal of the agreement is possible in the near future.

Author: Aleksandar Ivković