A combine harvests wheat in a field near the village of Suvorovskaya in Stavropol Region, Russia on 17 July 2021. (Photo credit: REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko)
The UN mediated a round of talks on 13 July between military delegations from Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey in order to negotiate secure passage of Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea.
The talks, hosted in Istanbul, sought to establish a safe passage of cargo ships from the port of Odessa, located on the Black Sea, in order to create a “food corridor” that will remain an untouchable zone for all those involved in the conflict.
Ankara’s military is a slightly impartial mediator between Kiev and Moscow. Ankara openly supports Kiev but has not fully burned its bridges with Moscow, giving them a position of trust between the two warring parties.
The UN-brokered plan seeks to alleviate the global food crisis that has been artificially created as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which has halted grain exports.
Both countries are among the world’s top grain exporters.
“We are working hard indeed but there is still a way to go,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to reporters on 12 July about the progress of the plan. “Many people are talking about it. We prefer to try and do it.”
A draft of the plan, as revealed by diplomats, would allow Ukrainian cargo ships to be guided through the waters by ships from the Ukrainian authorities — due to the knowledge Kiev has of the naval mines planted at sea by the Ukrainian armed forces.
Russia, meanwhile, would enter into a truce along the area the ship will sail. And Turkey, under the auspices of the UN, would inspect all Ukrainian ships for weapons smuggling, which would alleviate Russian concerns of potential abuse of this plan.
Russian foreign ministry official Pyotr Ilyichev confirmed Moscow’s readiness to facilitate grain exports through the Black Sea, adding that Moscow supports the proposal to inspect ships to prevent potential arms smuggling.
Russia is additionally pushing for the relaxation of some western sanctions that directly affect the ability of Russia to export its grains to the global market.
“There are obstacles for the Russian side in the areas of ship insurance, logistics, transportation services, and banking operations due to the sanctions imposed,” a Russian diplomatic source told RIA news agency.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that a deal with Moscow in the area of securing a safe passage for food exports is “two steps away,” as stated in an interview with a Spanish newspaper.
The talks are taking place ahead of the expected annual grain harvest for the year 2022, which is currently underway. The months of July through November typically mark the busiest annual time period when both countries export their grain supplies.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Ankara on 8 June to discuss the UN-proposed plan with his Turkish counterpart.
The two officials declared that the main problem obstructing the safe shipment of grain exports were the mines placed in the sea by Ukrainian forces and Azov Battalion militants.
Lavrov criticized Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for refusing to discuss the clearing of mines.
“We state daily that we’re ready to guarantee the safety of vessels leaving Ukrainian ports and heading for the [Bosphorus] gulf, and we’re ready to do that in cooperation with our Turkish colleagues,” Lavrov said. “To solve the problem, the only thing needed is for the Ukrainians to let vessels out of their ports, either by de-mining or by marking out safe corridors … nothing more is required.”
The two officials declared that the Russian and Turkish navies are ready to contribute to the de-mining process, and that Russia would not use the clearing of mines as a pretext to launch attacks on Ukraine.
The Turkish customs detained a Russian-flagged cargo ship in early July due to pressure from Kiev, accusing the ship — the first commercial ship to set sail since the start of the Russian military operation in Ukraine — of carrying a load of stolen grains.
The ship was released on 6 July after Turkish authorities completed their inspection.