After Ukraine-Russia meeting, UN sees ‘a ray of hope’ to free grain
By Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Michael Schwirtz
Russian and Ukrainian negotiators met Wednesday in an increasingly desperate effort to release huge stores of grain blocked by Russian warships, yielding what the United Nations secretary-general called “a ray of hope” but no formal agreement that could alleviate rising world hunger.
Wednesday’s meeting, held in Istanbul with U.N. representatives and military officials from Russia, Ukraine and Turkey, had raised hopes for a breakthrough. It ended with progress, the U.N. official said, but no comprehensive deal.
“This was a first meeting, the progress was extremely encouraging. We hope that the next steps will allow us to come to a formal agreement,” said António Guterres, the secretary-general, speaking to reporters in New York after the 90-minute meeting ended.
“We still need a lot of goodwill by all parties,” he said, adding, “More technical work will now be needed to materialize today’s progress, but the momentum is clear.”
Hulusi Akar, the Turkish defense minister who hosted the talks, said that Ukrainian and Russian negotiators would meet again in Istanbul next week, and that a coordination center with representatives from both sides would be set up there.
Officials have tried for months to break the impasse over Ukrainian grain without triggering an escalation in the war or a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO. In interviews, more than half a dozen officials directly involved or briefed on the plans cited obstacles to an agreement that ranged from the mundane to the downright “Mission Impossible.”
Proposed alternatives, such as moving the grain overland or through the Danube River, have been deemed too slow, cumbersome and small-scale, given that more than 22 million tons of grain are trapped in Odesa and other Black Sea ports blockaded by Russian warships.
Failing to move the grain from ports and silos could begin to hamper the summer harvest, leaving farmers no place to store fresh crops.
The war in Ukraine is already adding to a global food crisis that has sent the prices of vital commodities like wheat and barley to historic highs.
The most immediate and consequential fallout is looming famine in the Horn of Africa, where years of drought have devastated communities in Somalia and parts of neighboring countries. Ukraine, the world’s fourth-largest exporter of grains, is a key source for that region.
Efforts to reach a diplomatic agreement have been hampered by problems that include mines in the Black Sea, arranging at-sea inspections of the cargo, and convincing the Kremlin that it has an interest in resolving the blockade.
While officials were discussing the grain crisis in Istanbul, Ukraine’s military began to punch back on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, striking bases and ammunition depots deep within Russian-occupied territory with the help of new, more powerful weapons provided by the West.
Early Wednesday morning, a fireball lit up the sky over Luhansk, the capital of a Russian-held province in eastern Ukraine. Russian media reported that Ukraine’s military had hit an anti-aircraft battery.
That followed the destruction of six ammunition warehouses Tuesday in Russian-controlled territories in southern and eastern Ukraine, according to Serhii Bratchuk, the spokesperson for Odesa’s military administration.
The strategy by Ukrainian forces was still in its early days, and it was not yet clear whether it was allowing them to disrupt Russian artillery attacks and offensive operations.
Crucial to this effort, Ukrainian officials say, has been the arrival of new long-range weapons systems and artillery units, particularly the truck-mounted, multiple rocket launchers from the United States known as High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems or HIMARS, and similar systems from other NATO countries.
Those rocket launchers, which began arriving in Ukraine in June, are proving effective at targeting Russian military bases and ammunition supply depots far behind enemy lines. The systems fire satellite-guided rockets, whose range of more than 40 miles is greater than anything else Ukrainian troops have in their arsenal.
The widening destruction has intensified efforts to help Ukraine, once known as Europe’s breadbasket, move its crops away from the fighting and into global markets.
The European Union, concerned the Istanbul talks won’t bear immediate fruit, has been working on half a dozen small-scale land and river routes out of Ukraine, officials said. The bloc has deployed more than 100 officials to help Romania, Poland, Moldova and Lithuania move grain by rail, road and river.
Those efforts have been bedeviled by logistical difficulties, including different railway gauges used in Ukraine and EU countries, expired train licenses and dredging needed for the Danube River.
The EU and Romania are working on one possible route that would use the Danube Delta. Ukrainian officials estimate that, with the right measures, half a million tons a month could be added to that route, bringing the total to about 1 million tons.
Critics say the alternatives would be extremely laborious and ultimately a drop in the bucket. EU officials concede that, at best, those efforts could move about 5 million tons per month.
Ukrainian officials estimate that about 8 million tons would need to leave the country every month to maintain historical export flows.
The U.N.-Turkey plan under negotiation would require a tremendous level of trust between Ukraine and Russia — a scarce commodity itself after months of death and destruction in the war — as well as careful execution.
At the Group of 7 industrialized nations meeting in Germany late last month, Guterres expressed optimism that a breakthrough could be reached within 10 days, according to several officials briefed on the talks or who had listened in. That was more than two weeks ago.
According to three senior government officials, Guterres said the United Nations had secured a solution to a key obstacle: mines that Ukraine has placed in its ports to deter Russia.
Ukraine had asked for assurances that Russia would not attack if it removed some of those mines, and it had also sought long-range missiles to strike Russian submarines, and NATO escorts for grain ships.
Instead, Guterres told leaders that the Ukrainians had agreed to remove only a few of the mines and have their own Navy or Coast Guard captains steer freighters to international waters, officials said. Foreign crews would then take the ships to Istanbul, before continuing to other destinations.
A key sticking point has been the inspection of vessels and cargo. Russia has demanded that it alone carry out inspections to make sure that ships are exporting only grain and not returning with weapons to Ukraine.
The U.N. and Turkey-led negotiations also include a promise to help Russia export its fertilizer and grain. To do so, the EU might need to remove sanctions on Russian fertilizer — which it has not indicated it plans to do.
Russian grain is not sanctioned, but Russia says its insurance and shipping costs have skyrocketed since the Black Sea was designated a war zone.
“The problem is that those countries have imposed sanctions against some of our seaports, created difficulties with cargo insurance and freighting,” Putin said on June 30 during a meeting in the Kremlin with the president of Indonesia.
Western officials have squarely blamed Russia, accusing its troops of destroying or plundering grain stocks in Ukraine and even trying to sell them overseas. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said Putin is weaponizing hunger in the developing world.