The first meeting in months between Russia and Ukraine took a critical step toward ensuring the export of desperately needed grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to help ease the global food crisis.
Turkey announced a deal with Ukraine, Russia and the United Nations on Wednesday aimed at resuming Ukrainian grain exports blocked since Moscow launched its invasion in February, raising prospects for an end to a standoff that has exposed millions to the risk of starvation.
The summit in Istanbul marked the Russian and Ukrainian governments’ first face-to-face talks since another meeting in the Turkish metropolis in late March.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said agreements would be signed when the parties meet again next week that included “joint controls” for checking grains in ports and Turkey ensuring the safety of Black Sea export routes for Ukrainian grain.
NATO-member Turkey has retained close ties to both Moscow and Ukraine and has worked with both countries and the U.N. to reach an agreement. It has offered to provide safe Black Sea corridors.
The four-way meeting focused on discussions about stumbling blocks to a deal, mainly on how to ship about 22 million tons of grain stuck in Ukraine because of the war.
Hours after the talks, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said a “critical step forward” had been made toward reviving Ukrainian grain exports.
He cautioned that “more technical work will now be needed” to reach an agreement, “but the momentum is clear… I’m encouraged. I’m optimistic, but it’s not yet fully done.”
With the war in Ukraine in its fifth month and much of the world seeing food prices soar and millions in developing countries facing hunger and possible starvation, getting grain and fertilizer shipments moving again from two of the world’s major exporters is crucial.
Guterres proposed a package deal, supported by Turkey, in early June to unblock shipments of Ukrainian wheat and other food crops from the Black Sea and lift restrictions on Russia’s exports of grain and fertilizer. He kept tight-lipped about progress – until Wednesday.
Akar said the talks were held in a constructive atmosphere. “We see that the parties are willing to solve this problem,” he said, forecasting agreements next week.
Coordination center in Istanbul
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared optimistic in late-night comments.
“The Ukrainian delegation has reported to me that there is progress. In the coming days we will agree on the details with the U.N. secretary general,” Zelenskyy said.
He said he was grateful to the United Nations and Turkey for their efforts to restore Ukraine’s agricultural exports. “If they succeed in removing the Russian threat to shipping in the Black Sea, it will reduce the severity of the global food crisis,” he added.
A coordination center would be established in Istanbul and would include U.N., Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian officials, Akar said.
“Its task will be to carry out general monitoring and coordination of safe navigation in the Black Sea,” Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said on Twitter.
Russia said it had presented a package of proposals for a “practical and quick solution” to unblock the export of Ukrainian grain but did not elaborate.
Sides sound optimistic
Both Moscow and Kyiv sounded optimistic on Thursday.
Ukraine is “definitely a step closer” to clinching a deal to export grain through its Black Sea ports after Wednesday’s talks, the country’s Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said on Thursday.
“We are definitely a step closer to a result,” the minister told Reuters.