At an economic forum in Vladivostok on September 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to malign countries opposing his war on Ukraine by falsely claiming they were hoarding Ukrainian grain.
Putin made multiple misrepresentations about the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal brokered with Turkey’s help to allow safe passage for commercial shipments of Ukrainian grain that had been blocked. An estimated 400 million people worldwide rely on Ukrainian farm exports.
Under the initiative, the United Nations set up a Joint Coordinating Center to monitor shipments, which are inspected in Turkey. The agreement was called “unprecedented” when signed in late July. Since then, more than 100 shipments have been logged, though not all have been delivered.
At the forum, however, Putin claimed developing and poor countries were being cheated under the deal.
“Just as many European countries acted in previous centuries – as colonialists – this is how they continue acting today,” he said, according to Reuters. “They have once again cheated the developing countries and continue cheating them.”
“Almost all the grain exported from Ukraine is sent not to the poorest developing countries, but to European Union countries.”
That is false.
Let’s forget for the moment that Russia, under Putin’s imperial vision, is trying to take over its independent neighbor by arms, has indiscriminately killed thousands of civilians, and has disrupted one of the world’s most important food producers – Ukrainian agriculture.
Instead, let’s look at the actual shipments listed on the Joint Coordinating Center’s website and compare them to Putin’s words, as reported by Reuters.
Putin: “Almost all the grain exported from Ukraine is sent not to the poorest developing countries, but to European Union countries.”
The data: The Joint Center reports shipments with destinations in 22 countries (see chart below) and the amount of grain in metric tons.
In fact, 61% of the 2.3 million metric tons in outbound voyages through September 8 was destined for 13 developing countries (as defined by the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development). Excluding the two biggest developing countries – China and Turkey – 35% of the grain so far is for developing countries.
That is more than the 32% of grain, again measured by the ton, going to eight European countries listed in the data. (Four Mideast countries – Israel, Iran, Lebanon and Yemen – account for 10 percent.)
Putin: “If you exclude Turkey as an intermediary, then practically all the grain exported from Ukraine has been shipped not to the developing and poorest countries, but to the countries of European Union."
The data: In fact, the 32% going to European countries already excludes Turkey, a developing country that is primarily in Asia. So, most of the grain is not going to Europe.
Putin: “In line with the U.N.'s World Food Program which envisages aid to the neediest countries, only two ships have been loaded [with grain for those countries]. I stress, only two out of 87. Only 60,000 tons of food was exported on them out of 2 million tons.”
The data: Granted, Putin may have his own definition of “neediest.” Since all these countries are buying grain, they all had some need. We’ll presume he means impoverished African countries, though, since Putin said that helping them was one reason Russia backed the grain deal.
In fact, 17% of shipments (by ton) so far are earmarked for five African nations – Djibouti, Egypt, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan. They total 399,531 metric tons.
Putin: “Only 3% of food has been shipped to the developing countries."
The data: As noted above, developing countries are the destination for 61% of the tonnage so far. That figure includes Turkey and China, both on the wealthier end of the developing country scale.
Turkey, the destination for 20% of the grain so far, is a major miller and has traditionally been a large buyer of Ukrainian farm products. Turkish businesses also lease land for cultivation in Ukraine.
China, destination for 7% of the grain so far, has been parroting Russian disinformation (joining the likes of QAnon) about the war on Ukraine and buying up Russian oil at a friendly discount.
Putin: His reference to the U.N.’s World Food Program, which feeds the starving, bears scrutiny.
The facts: As we pointed out in an earlier fact check on the grain deal, the United States is the biggest contributor to the World Food Program, with $5 billion given so far this year.
Italy, Germany, France and Ireland – four of the “cheating” European countries that Putin referred to – each have contributed far more to the World Food Program this year than Russia, which is only the 33rd biggest donor. Russia’s $10.6 million in contributions amount to two-tenths of 1% of the U.S. contribution.
Despite all this, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to have bought in to Putin's critique of the grain shipments. Erdogan also said Russian grain should be shipped through the Black Sea. We note that Western sanctions on Russia do not apply to grain, but Russia argues that shippers are shying away.
But let's not forget: It’s important to recall that Russia’s war on Ukraine has caused more than $4 billion in damage to Ukraine’s agricultural infrastructure, by one reputable, independent estimate. And there are others.
Moreover, multiple news reports have alleged that Russia has stolen Ukrainian grain. A BBC report in June, interviewed Ukrainian farmers and cited GPS data that tracked trucks hauling looted grain from southern Ukrainian farms to Crimea.
“They stole our grain. They destroyed our premises, destroyed our equipment,” one farmer told the BBC.
In early July, the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper reported:
“A Russian-flagged ship carrying thousands of tonnes of grain is being held and investigated by Turkish authorities in the Black Sea port of Karasu over claims its cargo was stolen from Ukraine.
“Turkish customs officials acted after Kyiv claimed the Zhibek Zholy was illegally transporting 7,000 tonnes of grain out of Russian-occupied Berdiansk, a Ukrainian port in the south-east of the country.”
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, claimed the grain “was being carried on a contract between Estonia and Turkey.”
But that was after Russian occupation authorities said the vessel was the “first commercial ship” to carry cargo from Russian-held ports since fighting began in February, The Guardian reported.