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Odessa grain terminal on fire from Russian airstrike

Grain warfare: Russia escalates the conflict

In the wake of Russia withdrawing from the Black Sea grain deal on Monday, the Kremlin announced on Wednesday that it will consider all ships traveling to Ukrainian ports as hostile vessels, escalating tensions at sea and further impeding Ukraine’s ability to export grain.

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Ukrainian flag is covered with grains.


What We’re Watching: Lavrov meeting UN chief Guterres, Biden hosting South Korea’s President Yoon

Playing chicken with grain again

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Monday in New York for talks on renewing that crucial Ukraine grain export deal.

To rewind, last year, with the Ukraine war contributing to soaring global food prices, the UN and Turkey brokered an agreement for Russia to lift a naval blockade that was preventing Ukraine from exporting its huge grain harvests to the world. At the same time, the UN also agreed to help Russia boost its own massive exports of grain and fertilizer, which had fallen because of financial sanctions against the Kremlin.

By tamping down global food prices, the deal helped prevent more than 100 million people from falling into extreme poverty, according to the UN. But Russia says it hasn’t seen enough progress on its own grain and fertilizer exports, and Moscow is threatening to ditch the grain deal altogether when it next comes up for renewal on May 18.

Let’s see whether Guterres and Lavrov can separate the wheat from the chaff on this to grind out an agreement.

Beyond that, expect some diplomatic fireworks as Lavrov chairs two meetings of the UN Security Council, where Russia currently holds the rotating presidency. How does, say, Ukraine feel about that? See our recent interview with Kyiv’s UN envoy Sergiy Kyslytsya.

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A family tries to flee Khartoum.


What We’re Watching: US preps Sudan embassy evacuation, Kosovo election boycott, US abortion pill decision, Ukrainian grain curbs, Schumacher’s “interview"

US seeks to evacuate embassy as Sudan crisis deepens

One American has been killed amid the fighting in Sudan this week, the State Department said Thursday. With the security situation worsening, the US is preparing for a possible evacuation of roughly 70 embassy staffers by deploying troops to nearby Djibouti who could help with the operation.

But amid ongoing bombardments in Khartoum, the capital, Washington acknowledges that any evacuations will be hard to pull off – whether they involve embassy workers or the 19,000 US citizens living in Sudan.

This comes as two warring military factions, both linked to the country's former autocrat Omar al-Bashir, have been locked in a battle for almost a week that’s caused Khartoum’s 5 million residents to hide in their homes. Fighting has also prompted tens of thousands to flee into neighboring Chad. (For more on the causes of the conflict and regional implications, see here.)

Other states – including Japan and Germany – have already tried to evacuate their citizens but have been forced to stand down as Khartoum’s airfields remain closed due to heavy shelling.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is deteriorating. After a tenuous ceasefire broke down Wednesday, the World Health Organization said that the death toll had surpassed 300. What’s more, Khartoum residents say they are quickly running out of food as the UN has suspended aid deliveries and many stores have run out of supplies.

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A protester with vanished nails in Iranian flag holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini.


What We’re Watching: 40 days of protest in Iran, Franco-German tensions, good grain news

40 days of Mahsa

On Wednesday, Iranian authorities fired tear gas and live ammunition at mourners in Kurdistan province as they marched to the grave of Mahsa Amini 40 days after her in-custody death. Thousands ignored road blockades and marched through a field to reach Aichi Cemetery to pay their respects to the 22-year-old, who was reportedly beaten when arrested for wearing her hijab “improperly.” Meanwhile, protests continued around the country, taking hold most notably in the traditionally conservative grand bazaar in downtown Tehran, where people chanted “freedom” and called for the ousting of the supreme leader. It’s been six weeks since Amini’s death energized a women-led movement in Iran that has galvanized students, labor unions, and oil workers who are calling for the toppling of the repressive Islamic Republic. Human rights groups say more than 200 protesters have been killed by Iranian forces since demonstrations began, including dozens of children. What’s more, thousands have reportedly been arrested, and warehouses have been converted into makeshift prisons to house them. The stakes for Iranians couldn’t be higher, and yet the daily protests persist.

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A WFP official looks on as UN-chartered ship carrying Ukrainian wheat docks in Djibouti.

Hugh Rutherford/WFP/Handout via REUTERS

What We're Watching: Africa got grain, Ukraine counteroffensive, CCP save the date

Ukrainian grain arrives in Africa

Finally, some more good food news. The first cargo of Ukrainian grain to Africa since the Russian invasion docked Tuesday in Djibouti en route to famished Ethiopia. The UN-chartered ship carries 23,000 metric tons of wheat, enough to feed some 1.5 million Ethiopians for a month. But the drought-stricken country needs a lot more, particularly amid an ongoing civil war in the northern Tigray region that’s caused a humanitarian crisis. What's more, neighboring Somalia and Kenya are also at risk of famine due to the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in 40 years. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, UN food agencies got three-quarters of their grain from Ukraine, so they've had to scale down their operations in the region right when food aid is most needed. The UN-brokered deal for Russia to resume grain shipments from Ukraine's Black Sea ports is slowly bringing down global food prices, which were soaring in part because until recently 20 million metric tons of grain meant for export were stuck in Ukraine. It also offers relief to African nations, many of which have been hit hard by rising food prices stemming from the war between the Sunflower Superpowers. Food shipments are coming, but they are slow — especially for the 22 million people across the Horn of Africa who are at risk of starvation.

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