Russia’s Propaganda Tactics: Analyzing the Rhetoric and Numbers in the Black Sea Grain Initiative

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  1. Why did the Grain Deal end?
  2. What does Africa have to do with it?
  3. The numbers Behind the Grain Export: Debunking the “Evil West” Narrative
  4. EU Farmers and the Impact of Grain Narratives
  5. Сonclusion

The Black Sea Grain Initiative, a grain deal forged between Russia and Ukraine with the mediation of the UN and Türkiye, marked a significant diplomatic accomplishment in 2022. The agreement had far-reaching implications, permitting Ukrainian food exports from Black Sea ports, which held immense importance for Ukraine’s economy and global food supplies. Commencing grain shipments helped mitigate world food prices, alleviating the looming threat of a worldwide food crisis and hunger in vulnerable regions.

However, on July 17, 2023, Russia suspended participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative because of the non-fulfillment of certain agreements related to the facilitated export of Russian fertilizers. The statements of Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin about this withdrawal highlighted a familiar narrative of Russian propaganda. They emphasized the complete dishonesty and betrayal of Ukraine and the ‘collective West’ accusing them of violating the terms of the deal and obstructing Russia’s humanitarian efforts. The Russian Ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botan-Kharchenko, has taken center stage as the purveyor of Russian narratives in the Western Balkans. In a recent interview, he claimed that “the grain deal for the West is nothing more than a means to line pockets and facilitate terrorist activities.” Thus, by publicly blaming Ukraine and the West, Russia employed its time-tested propaganda tactics to shape the narrative, pressure specific points of contention, and hide the complex web of political and economic interests behind its decision to withdraw from the Black Sea deal.

The situation calls for careful observation, as the Black Sea Initiative is not merely a grain deal but an intricate web of international relations and regional dynamics. Russia’s withdrawal can reverberate throughout the global food market and affect regional diplomatic ties. As events unfold, it remains crucial to decipher Russian propaganda’s underlying motives and rhetoric to understand the situation and its potential consequences better. The following, therefore, explains why did the Grain Deal end and what does Africa have to do with it, while showcasing the numbers behind the grain export.

Why did the Grain Deal end?

In exploring the recent developments surrounding Russia’s decision not to extend the agreement, it becomes evident that several objective reasons are being hidden under Russian rhetoric about the betrayal of the “collective West.” These factors have ultimately rendered the extension of the agreement unviable for Russia. Throughout the past year, Russia has conveyed various threats to withdraw from the grain deal. However, at the beginning of summer 2023, tangible indications of a genuine intention to terminate the agreement emerged.

Notably, the Russian side has created obstacles in the delivery process by repeatedly suspending the registration process of Ukrainian ships, causing disruptions since June 27. Additionally, Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Initiative could be linked to losing its interest in maintaining the seaport operation in Odesa. A crucial aspect of the deal for Russia was the allowance to export ammonia, a vital component of nitrate fertilizers, through a pipeline passing through Ukrainian territory. However, Uralchem, a prominent ammonia producer in Russia, recently announced finding an alternative supply route, reducing the dependency on the previous arrangement. Given these developments, Olga Trofimtseva, Ambassador at Large with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, reported that Ukrainian authorities are “99.9% sure” that Russia will withdraw from the Black Sea Initiative in July.

Furthermore, Russia’s withdrawal might have been influenced by various domestic and global political changes. Notably, the attempted military mutiny by the private military company ‘Wagner’ on June 23-24, 2023, raised concerns about the loyalty of Russia’s military and security services to President Vladimir Putin’s regime, impacting the authorities’ image within the nation. Additionally, Türkiye’s recent actions have also played a role in affecting Russia’s leadership authority. Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s support for Ukraine’s NATO membership prospects and the agreement to back Sweden’s bid to join the Alliance was anticipated by the Kremlin. However, the unexpected return of commanders from the Azov regiment to Ukraine from Türkiye, contrary to the terms of a prisoner exchange agreement, resulted in significant image losses and public outrage in Russia.

These circumstances have created discontent and tension within Russian society, providing a moment for Russia to respond and seek retribution for what it perceives as betrayals from the Western world. The decision to withdraw from the grain deal was portrayed as a refusal to cooperate with cheating and a hostile Western community, as emphasized by Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, who likened Russia’s position to a plane-taking off against the wind. In other words, despite facing opposition from the world, Russia remains steadfast in asserting its independence and integrity. However, Russian propagandist rhetoric could have broader implications for global politics.

What does Africa have to do with it?

The recent termination of the grain deal and the escalating rhetoric regarding the “hostile” West have gained particular significance in anticipation of the Russia-Africa summit, set to take place on July 27-28, 2023, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Russia’s historical ties with Africa have given it a strategic foothold in the region, which it has been capitalizing on recently. Notably, Wagner’s actions have garnered attention, with their presence recorded in over 10 African countries. Pro-Russian forces’ involvement in military coups has been previously documented in Mali and Burkina Faso and, more recently, in Niger, which declined participation in the Russian summit. In addition, Russia has established an expansive information ecosystem comprising thousands of websites and social media accounts to kindle anti-Western sentiments within African states. The Institute for Strategic Research at the Military School and the Center for Strategic Studies of Africa have reported on this disinformation campaign. This propaganda machinery is crucial in shaping perceptions and cultivating a pool of pro-Russian African politicians. If successful, they could offer the Kremlin 54 out of 193 votes in the UN General Assembly, thereby influencing global decisions and policies in favor of Russia.

However, the attitudes of African countries towards Russia, particularly regarding the conflict in Ukraine, have proven to be diverse and complex despite Russia’s efforts to influence perceptions. While some may interpret the voting pattern of African states against UN resolutions condemning Russia as support for its actions, the reality is more nuanced. Many African countries have opted for a neutral stance, influenced by their weaker and dependent positions, since the war in Ukraine has had significant consequences on Africa, including impacts on food and fuel prices and hindering the continent’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, tensions between Russia and African nations were further highlighted when Vladimir Putin couldn’t take part in the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, due to South Africa’s inability to guarantee that Putin would not be arrested on the International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant. This incident caused significant reputational costs for Putin, as earlier South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s statements about the impossibility of capturing Putin and withdrawing from ICC jurisdiction for this were widely covered in the Russian media.

Thus, Russia is acutely aware of the region’s significance amidst the unfolding geopolitical landscape. Moreover, Ukraine is also making efforts to bolster its influence in Africa, as demonstrated by the recent launch of the second diplomatic tour by Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmitry Kuleba, to African countries in May 2023 (the first tour took place in the fall of 2022). Therefore, rejecting the grain deal just ahead of the Russia-Africa summit could be perceived as a Russian strategic move to exert pressure on African countries. Before the conflict in Ukraine, 15 African states heavily relied on wheat imports from Ukraine or Russia, with six of them importing over 70% of their wheat from the region. Consequently, the hesitation and refusal to fulfill the terms of the grain deal pose an existential threat to these nations, potentially creating an opportunity for Russia to seek closer cooperation and support from them.

The Numbers Behind Grain Export: Debunking the ‘Evil West’ Narrative

A recurring argument in Russian rhetoric suggests that the West receives the majority of Ukrainian grain exports while Africa, suffering from hunger, gets only a meager share. This narrative plays on the historical colonial past of African countries, painting the West as insidious and cynical. But what does the official data reveal? According to UN statistics on the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Ukraine exported 32.9 million tons of grain during the agreement’s year. It is true that only 2.5% of this grain went to low-income countries, in particular, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, receiving a combined 822.1 tons. However, a significant portion of the grain, 17.15%, was sent to countries in the lower-middle and upper-middle income groups. These included Algeria, Djibouti, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Kenya, Morocco, Tunisia, Indonesia, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and China. Moreover, some of these grain supplies were further distributed to needy countries. For instance, certain wheat shipments were milled into flour in Türkiye and then sent to countries where the World Food Programme runs humanitarian operations. Thus, the actual supply rate for African countries stands at 13.34%, not the earlier claimed 2.5%.

This data clarifies why African countries overwhelmingly supported the resumption of the grain deal, despite President Putin’s offer of free grain to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic, and Eritrea. Moreover, Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa expressed gratitude for the offer but declined, stating that they do not require additional grain. Further, President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa emphasized that African countries’ main objective was not to seek ‘gifts’ but to address broader concerns beyond grain deliveries. Thus, statistics shed light on the complexity of grain exports and debunk the notion of an ‘evil West’ hoarding resources while Africa is left in need. The situation is far more nuanced, and African countries definitely have made informed decisions, recognizing the true nature of the grain supply.

EU Farmers and the Impact of Grain Narratives

Russian narratives about rich Western countries monopolizing Ukrainian grain are not just a concern for deprived African nations. It also has significant implications for Eastern European farmers, particularly those in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland. In May 2022, before the Grain Deal took place, the European Union decided to eliminate duties and quotas on exporting grain and other agricultural products from Ukraine through Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria. However, this move had unintended consequences. It facilitated transit and led to a surge in the import of Ukrainian products into Eastern European markets. As a result, local agricultural producers faced a situation of de facto dumping[i], causing a sharp drop in prices for their products.

The impact was especially strong in Poland, where farmers’ discontent escalated into spontaneous and organized protests. In response to the growing unrest, the European Commission made concessions. On May 3, EU blocked exporting agricultural products from Ukraine to Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia until 5 June 2023. Additionally, the Commission approved financial support of 100 million euros for local farmers and pledged to explore measures to ease transit. Focusing on large-scale purchases of Ukrainian grain by wealthy Western nations and discussing alternative plans for overland imports of Ukrainian raw materials through EU countries neighboring Ukraine might reignite dissatisfaction among Eastern European farmers. By capitalizing on the problems of Eastern European farmers, the Kremlin strive to stoke nationalist sentiments, portraying Ukraine as a competitor gaining favorable treatment at the expense of neighboring countries.

Furthermore, recent information ‘declassified’ by Russian hackers, disseminated through Telegram channels, indicates this clear intention. It suggests that Ukraine purportedly earned over a million dollars in July 2023 from alleged illegal exports of wheat and corn to EU countries such as Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. For example, the documented upsurge in anti-EU sentiment within the Polish farming community raises concerns for the European Union and the Polish government. Given the pivotal role of the agricultural sector in the country’s economy and rural regions, the narratives of Russian propaganda pose significant concerns. In a recent speech by the Polish Secretary of State in the Presidential Office, Wojciech Kolarski admitted that the transit of Ukrainian grain through Poland and the discontent of farmers have the potential to destabilize the country’s political landscape on the background of upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2023. All things considered, this approach aligns with the broader pattern of Russia’s efforts to sow discord and division within the European Union and weaken its unity on Ukraine-related issues.

Dumping in the market refers to the practice of selling goods or products in a foreign market at prices significantly below their production cost or the prices charged in the home market. It is a form of unfair trade where foreign companies aim to gain a competitive advantage over domestic businesses by flooding the market with cheap products, potentially harming local industries and economies. Dumping is often subject to regulations and anti-dumping measures to protect domestic industries from unfair competition.


Russia’s recent suspension of the grain deal has sparked a flurry of narratives skillfully crafted by the Kremlin’s propaganda machinery. The move appears to be a strategic attempt to divert blame onto its partners while reinforcing the image of a ‘collective West’ that poses a threat. At the same time, Russia seeks to portray itself as a ‘noble and just world leader, defending oppressed nations and countries.’

Russia aims to shape its image domestically and abroad using half-truths and selective information coverage. Reports about Russia’s plans to supply free grain to Africa’s poorest nations were widely covered all around the globe, including Serbia. It was definitely an effort to present Russia as a defender of the weak and downtrodden. However, when examining the numbers, a different picture emerges

During the year of the grain deal, the poorest countries received 2.5% of the total exported grain, amounting to 822.1 tons. In contrast, President Vladimir Putin’s gift of 150 to 300 tons, with no clear indication of delivery timing, is a drop in the bucket compared to their actual needs. These nations will likely end up buying grain at inflated costs, as prices have surged since the agreement’s termination. It raises questions about whether this gift truly compensates for the deal’s breakdown and the losses borne by at least the poorest countries. Thus, Russia’s creative use of statistics and cunningly intertwined narratives force the public to examine the facts closely and recognize the complexities of the propaganda efforts.