Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied accusations that his armed forces are blocking Ukrainian grain exports from the Black Sea and said his government would “guarantee” the peaceful passage to ships leaving its ports.
In an interview with Russian state television on June 3, Putin tried to put the blame on Ukraine for the trapped grain, saying Kyiv has mined the Black Sea and sunk vessels, preventing grain ships from leaving.
Ukraine did so after Russia launched a massive, unprovoked invasion by land and air on February 24, sparking fears that it could seek to use its navy to take the key Black Sea port of Odesa.
“I have already told all our colleagues many times: let them clear the mines and let the ships loaded with grain leave the ports. We guarantee their peaceful passage into international waters without any problems,” Putin said.
The Russian president said his armed forces would not use the removal of mines “to launch any attacks [on Ukraine] from the sea.”
Glen Howard, a military analyst and president of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, said history shows Putin can’t be trusted to abide by his word.
The Kremlin repeatedly said Russia had no intention of invading Ukraine in the months leading up to its attack.
Howard said Ukraine now has anti-ship missile systems to defend its coast from invasion, including several delivered late last month by Denmark.
However, he said that grain ships leaving Ukrainian ports would have no escort and thus would be “trusting the Russians at their word.”
Putin’s comments came after he met with Senegalese President Macky Sall, who is also the current head of the African Union, to discuss surging food prices.
Africa is heavily dependent on grain supplies from Russia and Ukraine, and any disruptions could lead to social unrest.
The surge in food prices on the heels of the conflict is already putting pressure on African governments and, in some countries, leading to protests.
Amid isolation from the West, Putin has been seeking to build his ties with African nations, many of whom have significant historical links with Moscow dating back to Soviet times.
“President Putin has expressed to us his willingness to facilitate the export of Ukrainian cereals,” Sall wrote on Twitter after meeting Putin.
The war has blocked as many as 25 million tons of Ukrainian grain at local ports, Howard said.
Putin sought to downplay the significance of the issue, saying Ukrainian grain only represents about 2.5 percent of total world grain production.
However, Ukrainian grain makes up a significant percentage of global exports and thus has an outsized influence on world prices.
Putin also blamed the United States for rising food prices, saying the U.S. central bank stimulated inflation by printing too much money.
But wheat and corn prices have surged more than a quarter since Russia began massing its troops along Ukraine’s border in late October amid fears over grain exports while the United States has taken steps to curtail inflation by raising rates.
Russia also cut back on gas exports to Europe leading up to the war to gain leverage in talks with the West over Ukraine, driving prices to record highs. Natural gas is a key component in fertilizers used by farmers.
Putin suggested Ukraine could export grain via the Baltic Sea by shipping its products by rail through Belarus. The West would have to lift sanctions against Belarus to do so.
Howard dismissed Putin’s suggestion as impractical, saying there was not nearly enough rail capacity to move Ukraine’s grain.
Rail is also more expensive and shipping from the Baltic ports to Africa would extend the sea route by thousands of miles.
Howard said time was running out to export the grain, adding it will begin to rot by July.