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Western leaders blast Russia's exit from grain deal that's helped ease global hunger

A ship passes through the Bosphorus strait on October 14, 2022 in Istanbul, Turkey.
Chris McGrath
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A ship passes through the Bosphorus strait on October 14, 2022 in Istanbul, Turkey.

Updated October 30, 2022 at 10:45 AM ET

ODESA, Ukraine — The European Union called on Russia on Sunday to reverse its decision to suspend participation in a grain deal brokered by the United Nations that has helped ease the global food crisis.

Western leaders are condemning Moscow's actions, which are triggering a new wave of fears about global hunger and rampant inflation.

"Russia's decision to suspend participation in the Black Sea deal puts at risks the main export route of much needed grain and fertilisers to address the global food crisis caused by its war against Ukraine," Josep Borrell, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said in a Twitter message.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia was deliberately blockading food for the hungry.

In a nighttime address, he called Moscow's decision "predictable." He said Russia was already holding up 176 ships carrying more than 2 million tons of food.

"This is an absolutely transparent intention of Russia to return the threat of large scale famine to Africa and Asia," Zelenskyy said.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced he would be delaying his departure for an Arab League summit in Algiers in an attempt to help salvage the agreement. Guterres was "deeply concerned," a U.N. spokesperson said in a statement, and "continues to engage in intense contacts aiming at the end of the Russian suspension of its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative."

The grain deal was a lifeline for nations most in need

Ukraine is one of the world's largest producers of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but the war has wreaked havoc on the so-called breadbasket of Europe.

The grain corridor allowed some relief.

Since the agreement was signed in July, more than 9 million tons of grain have been exported out of the country.

Elena Neroba, a Kyiv-based analyst with the grain trading firm Maxigrain, said more than 54% of the grain went to countries most in need. She fears existing unrest over rising food prices will only get worse — and could turn violent.

"People don't have money to pay extra price for each slice of bread," she said. "They are not such rich countries like in Europe or U.S."

There had already been concerns about whether Russia would agree to continue the current agreement that expires on November 19.

Several countries were pushing Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend the deal, including Turkey, which helped broker the agreement.

But Moscow repeatedly raised concerns about its implementation.

"Our president raised this issue with President Putin when he met him in Astana," said Ibrahim Kalin, the chief adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "We received more or less a favorable response. But, the Russians are saying that they want to send in their ammonia and fertilizers as well."

Biden says Russia is weaponizing food

In the United States, President Biden took a moment from voting in Delaware, where he accused Moscow of weaponizing food.

"There's no reason for them to do that," Biden said. "But they're always looking for some rationale to be able to say the reason they're doing something outrageous is because the West made them do it."

Caitlin Welsh, a former top adviser in the Obama administration, said Putin knows what he's doing. Given how many countries depend on Russia for exports and fertilizer, they're wary of opposing Moscow when it comes to the war, according to Welsh.

"What we're seeing right now is that Russia is threatening food security for people around the world. It's using that as an instrument," said Welsh, who now runs the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I've never seen food security for millions held hostage by a global superpower — and used as a tool."

NPR's Charles Maynes contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.