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Russia is suspending a deal with Ukraine that kept the price of wheat from rising

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There are new fears about world hunger and out-of-control inflation now that Russia has suspended participation in a U.N.-brokered grain deal with Ukraine. Russia took the drastic step after accusing Ukraine of launching a, quote, "massive drone attack" on a fleet of warships in the Black Sea. Ukrainian officials argue that what Moscow is really doing is playing "Hunger Games" with the world, as NPR's Franco Ordoñez reports.

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PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Ukraine is accusing Russia of using the alleged drone strike as a false pretext to get out of the grain agreement that has helped ease the global food crisis.

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ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) This is an absolutely deliberate blockade by Russia.

ORDOÑEZ: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says the move is predictable. In a nighttime address, he notes that Russia was already holding up 176 ships carrying more than 2 million tons of food.

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ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) This is an absolutely transparent intention of Russia to return the threat of large-scale famine to Africa and Asia.

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IGOR KONASHENKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

ORDOÑEZ: Russia claims the attack fleet was protecting grain exports. Standing in front of a map of Ukraine, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, Igor Konashenkov, accuses Ukraine of launching a terrorist attack on ships outside the port city of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula.

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KONASHENKOV: (Through interpreter) We underline that the vessels of Chernomorsky fleet that has been subject to attack has been involved in ensuring security of the grain corridor.

ORDOÑEZ: And he blamed the British Navy for helping carry out the plan. Britain's defense ministry is hitting back, accusing Moscow of peddling false claims to distract from its own military failures. 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. Yet, since the grain agreement was signed in July, more than 9 million tons of grain have been exported out of the country. Elena Neroba is a Kyiv-based analyst. She says most went to countries on the brink of catastrophe.

ELENA NEROBA: Ukrainian grains were sold to African, Asian and Middle East countries where people are starving from hunger.

ORDOÑEZ: She fears already existing unrest over food prices will only get worse and could turn violent.

NEROBA: People don't have money to pay extra price for each slice of bread. They are not such rich like people in Europe or in the U.S.

ORDOÑEZ: 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.

IBRAHIM KALIN: Our president raised this issue with President Putin when he met him in Astana.

ORDOÑEZ: Ibrahim Kalin, the chief adviser to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, told NPR that just a couple weeks ago, Putin had appeared open to an extension.

KALIN: 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.

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

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There's no reason for them to do that, and - but they are 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.

ORDOÑEZ: Caitlin Welsh is a former top adviser in the Obama White House.

CAITLIN WELSH: Russia knows what they're doing right now.

ORDOÑEZ: She says so many countries depend on Russia for exports and fertilizer that they're wary to oppose Moscow in terms of the war.

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 in the war that's building in Ukraine. I've never seen food security for millions held hostage by a global superpower.

ORDOÑEZ: And she says Russia knows it has strings it can pull, and that's what Putin is doing. Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Odesa, Ukraine.

RASCOE: NPR's Fatma Tanis also contributed to this report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.