Blinken lauds deal to export Ukrainian grain, underscoring Turkey’s new importance on world stage

The signing ceremony in Turkey’s Istanbul between Russian and Turkish defense ministers to allow Ukraine to resume shipping grain from the Black Sea, July 22, 2022 (Photo: Vadim Savitsky, Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
The signing ceremony in Turkey’s Istanbul between Russian and Turkish defense ministers to allow Ukraine to resume shipping grain from the Black Sea, July 22, 2022 (Photo: Vadim Savitsky, Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken highly praised the understanding reached on Friday between Moscow and Kiev to allow the export of Ukrainian grain, which has been blocked as a result of the war with Russia.

Turkey was centrally involved, along with the United Nations, in mediating that agreement, and it has moved quickly to facilitate the implementation of the accord, which could prove somewhat difficult.

Still, on Wednesday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar announced the establishment of a Joint Coordination Center (JCC) in Istanbul to provide safe corridors for exports from three Ukrainian Black Sea ports. 

Ukrainian, Russian, UN, and Turkish officials will be posted to the JCC, and according to Turkish media, the first shipments of Ukrainian grain are expected to begin “within days.”

A spokesperson for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres similarly hailed the inauguration of the JCC, affirming that it “will facilitate the implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative to establish a humanitarian maritime corridor to allow ships to export grain and related foodstuffs from Ukraine.”

Turkey’s key role in mediating the agreement and its involvement in dealing with other aspects of the Ukraine crisis has provided Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unprecedented leverage in international affairs. 

Thus, Washington has become extremely cautious in expressing any criticism of Ankara, to the detriment of Kurdish and even Iraqi interests.

Blinken to Speak with Lavrov

Blinken’s remarks about the accord on exporting Ukrainian grain came as he announced that he will have a discussion later this week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov—their first direct exchange since Russia’s assault on Ukraine began six months ago.

The most important issue in their discussion will be a proposal for the exchange of two Americans held in Russia (Brittney Griner, a Women’s National Basketball Association star, and Paul Whelan, a former Marine) for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US.

But the second-most important issue, as Blinken explained, is “the matter of the tentative deal on grain exports that Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, and the United Nations reached last week.”

Grain Deal: Prevent World Hunger

One cannot overstate the importance of this understanding. Ukraine produces some 20% of the world’s high-grade wheat. Egypt, the most populous Arab state, and Lebanon are among the countries that get most of their wheat from Ukraine.

Ukraine’s wheat from last year’s harvest is ready for export—indeed, it would have been exported months ago were it not for the Russian assault on Ukraine. That grain needs to be exported now to make room to store the wheat that will be harvested shortly and address the global need for it.

To illustrate the pressing significance of this issue, Blinken recounted to journalists an incident that occurred at the G-20 foreign minister’s meeting in Indonesia earlier this month, which was highly embarrassing to Russia.

The G-20 consists of 19 countries, comprising most of the world’s largest economies, plus the European Union. As host of the meeting, Indonesia resisted calls to exclude Russia, and Lavrov attended the ministerial meeting on the scenic Indonesian island of Bali.

But it did not go well for him. “Foreign ministers from around the world [demanded] that Russia end its blockade of Odessa and of the grain that has been blocked in Ukraine for six months—more than 20 million tons,” Blinken said.

“Minister after minister did this from countries around the world geographically,” he continued, “to such an extent that Foreign Minister Lavrov [left and] decided not to return for the rest of the session.”

That, presumably, has something to do with why Russia has since agreed to allow the export of Ukraine’s wheat.

US Deferring to Turkey

When Joe Biden took office in January 2021, he scarcely concealed his distaste for the Turkish president. He met Erdogan in June 2021, but that meeting clarified none of the problems between Washington and Ankara.

Read More: Biden-Erdogan summit resolves little, prompting sharp decline in Turkish currency

Erdogan sought another meeting the following year, but Biden was reluctant—until after the Russian invasion of Ukraine when the US suddenly needed Turkey’s cooperation. 

The US and Turkish leaders met for the second time last month on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid. The key issue at that meeting was the bid by Sweden and Finland to join the alliance after Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine prompted them to abandon their long-standing neutrality.

As a NATO member, Turkey could veto their accession, as Erdogan threatened to do, and it was to prevent such a development that Biden met with him.

Yet already last March, the shift in Washington’s position toward Ankara was becoming evident.

Read More: Ukraine crisis prompting US to improve ties with Turkey

That has only continued in the time since. On Tuesday, for example, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price was asked about three issues involving Turkey. Any one of them might have prompted serious criticism of Ankara, but Price avoided doing so.

Asked about Erdogan’s upcoming visit to Russia, where he will meet President Vladimir Putin—the first such meeting of the head of any NATO state with Putin since his assault on Ukraine began, Price responded that he would “defer to our Turkish allies to speak to the intent and any agenda for President Erdogan’s potential travel,” before adding, “what I can say is that our Turkish allies have been instrumental in working to secure the grain deal that was signed last week.”

Turkey is conducting an assassination campaign against the commanders of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s principal partner in Syria in the fight against ISIS. Asked about the killing of the SDF’s second-in-command, Price responded, “We’ve called for an immediate de-escalation in northern Syria. We believe it’s crucial for all sides to maintain and respect ceasefire zones to enhance stability in Syria and work towards a political solution to the conflict.”

The reporter, unsatisfied, doubled down, noting, “An estimated 18 SDF members have been killed by Turkey. So is there anything else that the US can do apart from just calling on your ally to cease the hostilities?” But Price responded in similar terms.

The same attitude applies to Iraq, as well. The US is not inclined to criticize Turkey because of the overriding dangers posed by the Russian assault on Ukraine and the key role that Ankara is playing in mitigating those dangers.

Iraq’s Foreign Minister was in New York as the Security Council considered the Turkish artillery attack on Zakho. Asked about Baghdad’s request that the Council support its demand that Turkish forces leave Iraq, Price responded, “We’re aware of the complaint made by the Government of Iraq at the Security Council,” and “we reaffirm our position that military action in Iraq should be – should respect Iraqi sovereignty, should respect Iraqi territorial integrity.” 

But when asked a second time and asked directly, “Will you support Iraq in the UN Security Council?” Price did not say yes. Rather, he said, “We’ve supported those principles, including the principles that were articulated in the UN Security Council statement that was released today.”

As Biden has said, “Nothing like this”—i.e., Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine—“has happened since World War II.” No one knows how long this war will last. And no one knows what might happen if the US, and its European allies, falter. Will Putin target other countries? Where do his ambitions end?

For the US and Europe, these concerns are taking precedence over practically everything else.