BY ZEYNEP GURCANLI
A bit of news from Egypt; “In Egypt, which is one of the world’s largest wheat importing countries, people are making bread from potatoes due to the wheat scarcity.”
This is the concrete result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Egypt, which is thousands of kilometers away. When the two countries that served as the world’s wheat silos went to war, a global wheat shortage arose and new alternatives are being sought.
However, it is not easy to fill the vacuum of Ukraine and Russia in this field. That’s why even in the wartime environment, governments around the world are trying to open the way for the agricultural products produced by Ukraine to be delivered to the world by sea.
TURKEY’S KEY ROLE
Before the war, Ukraine was exporting about five million tons of wheat per month. After the start of war, this figure first fell to 1.2 million tons. Currently, the monthly figure has been increased to approximately 2 million tons with exports made using train lines and highways.
However, the use of railway or highway in a war environment is unsafe; Russia can hit a bridge or a critical intersection at any time. Therefore, it is necessary to utilize the sea route when exporting wheat.
The role and importance of Turkey, which controls the straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean seas, cannot be understated in the issue of Ukrainian wheat. Giant cargo ships that will leave the ports of Ukraine and Russia will first enter Turkish territorial waters, then cross the Istanbul and Çanakkale Straits to reach the Aegean and from there, international waters.
The biggest problem on this route are the mines that Ukraine has laid around its ports against Russian warships. Ankara is extremely active in removing mines; Shuttle diplomacy continues with Russia and Ukraine in this regard.
However, in diplomatic circles, it is said that Ukraine, which finds the country’s security more critical than the export of agricultural products, is dragging things down. The Ukrainian administration, which believes that if the mines are removed, its ports will become more and more open to Russian attacks, is evidently dragging its feet.
Turkey’s proposal is to remove mines along a corridor that will allow cargo ships to exit ports. Then, they propose establishing an international mechanism to check whether ships entering or leaving Ukrainian ports are carrying weapons, ammunition, or mercenaries to Turkey.
A SOLUTION TO MONTREAUX?
In this context, Turkey bears the main burden again. Due to the Montreux treaty, there are serious restrictions on the entry and exit of military ships from countries that are not littoral to the Black Sea, and equal freedom while they stay in the Black Sea. For this reason, the biggest task in the inspection of the corridor that will open to Ukrainian ports falls to Turkish experts and Turkish ships. However, even if there are no ships coming from non-Black Sea countries, it is also critical to bring an “international face” to the inspection force with European experts who will work on Turkish ships. Already, France and Italy have volunteered to send experts for the mission if this is agreed upon.
CLAIMS OF “STOLEN WHEAT”
However, the work does not end there. There are also claims of “stolen wheat.”
In the international community, claims that Russia has started to sell the wheat it collected from the regions it occupied in Ukraine “as if it were its own wheat” through occupied ports is becoming more and more common.
International media organizations are doing “forensic journalism” to track the wheat from the silo to the cargo ship, using open sources such as satellite images or the routes followed by ships and planes. Thus, it can be determined whether the wheat sold by Russia is its own production or wheat bought from the regions it has occupied in Ukraine.
As a matter of fact, the latest event on this subject is of interest to Turkey as well. Tons of Ukrainian wheat, monitored by BBC using open sources, was shown as “produced in Russia” and sailed to the Black Sea with a Russian cargo ship. Upon the publication of the news, the Ukrainian authorities took action and warned the Turkish authorities. According to the BBC’s claim, which was also shared by the Ukrainian authorities, the cargo ship Zhibek Zholy approached the Ukrainian port of Berdyansk, which was under Russian occupation, after departing from the Russian port of Novorossisk. Then, again, according to the claims by the Ukrainian authorities, the ship set out to deliver the Ukrainian wheat.
Upon the initiative of Ukraine, the Turkish authorities stopped the ship in Sakarya-Karasu. However, at the time of this writing, there has been no indication that the Turkish authorities complied with Ukraine’s request and seized the cargo on the ship. Obviously, Turkey is doing its own research.
ANOTHER PROBLEM IS RELATED TO CUSTOMS TAXES
Russia began to use the ports in the occupied regions for trade. However, to whom the “customs tax” of the ships loaded from these ports will be paid creates a great problem in terms of international law and trade. The Russians argue that it is sufficient to pay the customs duties to the authorities of the separatist Donetsk region, who control the ports together with the Russian soldiers. Ukraine, on the other hand, opposes this, emphasizing that Donetsk is its own territory, even if it is occupied. This uncertainty makes the occupied Ukrainian ports “poison fruit” for cargo ships.
Herein lies Turkey’s dilemma. Ankara, which has been acting as a mediator for a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine, or for humanitarian needs or trade to continue during the war, can get into a diplomatic stalemate because of even a single ship. One must be very careful.