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Russia halts participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

It's been a busy day of news involving Russia and its war in Ukraine. Today Moscow announced it was suspending participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, the grain deal. It had been a rare diplomatic compromise between Russia and Ukraine that allowed Ukraine to export millions of tons of wheat, corn, barley and other crops, despite Russia's blockade of its ports. Elsewhere in the region today, a key bridge connecting the Russian mainland to the annexed Crimean peninsula was damaged in an apparent attack by Ukraine. We're joined by NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

FLORIDO: So this grain deal, Charles, what justification did Moscow offer for reneging on this agreement?

MAYNES: Yeah. Russia's made no secret its been unhappy about the grain deal for some time, threatening repeatedly to suspend participation over the past year. A few days ago, President Vladimir Putin gave an interview in which he said the deal was one-sided to benefit Ukraine and had done nothing for Russia. The Russian complaints are not because of any sanctions on food - they don't exist - But because of sanctions on things like insurance, banking and access to ports that Russia says makes trade in grain and fertilizers all but impossible. And as this deadline rolled around today to either prolong or end the deal, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the jig was up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DMITRY PESKOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Peskov says that, unfortunately, these Russian complaints haven't been addressed, so the deal was effectively dead. Now, Peskov went on to say that as soon as conditions were met, Russia would rejoin the agreement immediately. Yet there were other immediate changes. Russia's foreign ministry said Moscow would no longer guarantee the security of any Ukrainian ships through the Black Sea starting tomorrow.

FLORIDO: So what has Ukraine been saying today about Russia's decision to pull out of this deal? And what have others involved in this agreement been saying?

MAYNES: Well, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it was Russia breaking the agreement, but that Ukraine would continue to try and export grain despite the risks of Russian retaliation. Meanwhile, the U.S. and its Western allies accused Moscow of hijacking the deal in a bid for sanctions relief. But it has to be said even the agreement's architects were disappointed. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who, along with the leader of Turkey, personally brokered this deal, said he deeply regretted Russia's decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Participation in these agreements is a choice, but struggling people everywhere and developing countries don't have a choice. Hundreds of millions of people face hunger, and consumers are confronting a global cost of living crisis, and they will pay the price.

MAYNES: You know, and Guterres did something rather undiplomatic for the world's top diplomat. He pulled the curtain back on negotiations with Putin to show the Russian complaints were mostly unfounded. Guterres noted that Russian exports were up, in fact way up to near normal levels, and he outlined real strides in resolving some of these sanctions-related entanglements with payment systems and the like.

FLORIDO: Well, meanwhile, Charles, we've also seen today this attack on a bridge that links mainland Russia to the annexed Crimean peninsula. What can you tell us about what happened there?

MAYNES: Well, at least two people have died. Another was seriously injured after what Russian authorities said was a terrorist attack by Ukraine on the so-called Kerch Bridge. Russian media reported two explosions hit the bridge this morning. Online video appears to show a section of road partially collapsed, which has halted traffic by car, but not apparently by a parallel rail line. And the question really here is how much or for how long this slows traffic across, because the 12-mile bridge is a key supply line for Russian forces operating in southern Ukraine, particularly as they continue to fend off a Ukrainian counteroffensive in that area.

There's also, of course, the deep symbolism of the bridge. You know, it's a physical manifestation of Russia's claim to territory it annexed in 2014 from Ukraine. And it's a pet project of President Putin's, so much so that he was the first to drive across it when it first opened. And so perhaps it's no surprise that Ukraine insists the bridge is a legitimate military target, even recently acknowledging it attacked the bridge in October of last year. But this time around, authorities in Kyiv have been more coy about any role Ukraine might have played, at least so far.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thanks very much.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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