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Russia, Ukraine and Turkey Approach a Deal on Ukraine Grain Exports, Officials Say

ISTANBUL – Officials from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations have agreed on key aspects of a plan to resume exports of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea, senior Turkish and UN leaders said.

At a meeting in Istanbul, officials from the four parties agreed to set up a coordination center in Istanbul, where their representatives would monitor outgoing grain shipments, Turkey’s defense minister said.

The deal is the first concrete breakthrough in weeks of United Nations-Turkey-led diplomacy aimed at relieving a global food crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The fighting has trapped millions of tons of grain in the country, restricting supplies and raising prices in international markets.

“Today, in a world darkened by the global crisis, we finally have a glimmer of hope,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres told reporters in New York. “Today is an important and substantial step, a step towards a comprehensive agreement.”

Officials said the talks ended with an agreement on general parameters for how grain can be exported again through Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, but warned that any deal has yet to be signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a Western official.

Officials believe that could happen when the Russian leader meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran next week.

Under the sweeping agreement reached on Wednesday, grain could be shipped from three Ukrainian ports in convoys escorted by Ukrainian ships, with a ceasefire to protect ships within geographic borders and some minesweeping operations, a person familiar with the talks said.

The Turkish Navy would inspect empty ships entering Ukrainian ports to allay Russian concerns that the ships could be used to transport Western weapons to Kiev’s armed forces. The United Nations will set up a command and control center in Istanbul to monitor the threat situation to shipping.

Technical details have yet to be worked out, including how mines will be cleared around Ukrainian ports, said the person familiar with the talks. Ukraine originally told the United Nations that safe passage through its minefields could be mapped, but so-called floating mines also needed to be cleared, the western official said.

“The most important thing is that we still need the green light from Putin,” the official said.

A person familiar with the talks said an agreement could be signed in the coming days after some technical details were ironed out, but warned: “It would be wrong to say an agreement is imminent.”

UN and Turkey officials have spearheaded talks aimed at bringing Ukrainian wheat and other key food products to the international market.

Wednesday’s talks should address some of the technical aspects of the potential grain corridor. Ukraine, meanwhile, is making some progress on export routes that don’t rely on its Black Sea port, although officials and farmers say the route, which will be negotiated on Wednesday, is crucial.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in an interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais published on Wednesday that Ukraine and Russia are currently “two steps” away from an agreement on the grain corridor. He has said in recent weeks that the two sides need to negotiate the full details of an agreement and that the UN “in principle” has a plan to set up a grain corridor.

Previous attempts to reach an agreement on a Black Sea grain corridor have failed in part because Ukraine is reluctant to remove sea mines it says are vital to defending against a possible Russian naval attack.

A significant portion of the world’s wheat supply has been disrupted as Ukraine’s Black Sea ports remain blocked following the Russian invasion. The WSJ examines why finding solutions to avoid a potential food crisis is so complicated. Photo: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Demanding security guarantees in exchange for removing one of their mines, Ukrainian leaders have said they simply cannot trust Russia not to attack following the full-scale invasion that began in February.

Yoruk Isik, an Istanbul-based marine expert following the talks, said at least a couple of weeks of demining would be needed before a corridor could be opened and minesweepers would be needed to work the corridor around the clock. He said one solution to Ukraine’s security concerns is to station a Turkish or Romanian warship near the port city of Odessa.

Officials have to deal with a number of challenges, including securing ships from remaining mines and insuring merchant ships navigating the Black Sea. Turkey has also proposed an operations center in Istanbul to oversee the grain corridor. Officials from Russia and Ukraine would have to negotiate the staffing and operation of the proposed center.

“The strong position of our military in the Black Sea will enable the return of safe navigation of ships,” Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Russian talks delegation “presented for consideration a package of proposals for the fastest possible practical solution to this problem,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov said, according to the Russian state news agency TASS. He did not give details of the proposals.

Wednesday’s meeting is the culmination of weeks of diplomacy by Turkish, UN and Western officials aimed at pushing a deal forward. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan personally raised the grain issue in separate phone calls with the presidents of Ukraine and Russia on Monday, Mr Erdogan’s office said.

The stakes in the negotiations are high, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine has already pushed up global food costs and increased pressure on poorer nations. In addition to blockading six of Ukraine’s 18 ports, Russia has bombed Ukraine’s grain terminals, bridges and other vital infrastructure needed to export food to the world.

More than 95% of Ukrainian grain used to be exported across the Black Sea. With that route stalled, the country exports less than a third of what it would normally do via its borders with the European Union and via barges on the Danube unloading onto ships in the Romanian port of Constanta.

With so much grain in the country and another 30 million tons of barley, wheat and other products expected from the current crop, Ukraine is running out of storage facilities for its harvest. Without proper storage, some of these plants could be lost to rot or insects.

While grain prices have fallen from the levels they reached after the invasion of Moscow, more Ukrainian supplies would further drive down prices at a time of runaway food inflation and acute shortages in parts of the developing world.

Meanwhile, the pace of border clearance has increased, allowing Ukraine to export more overland. The country exported two million tons of grain in June, less than the five to six million tons a month it could supply before the war but more than the 1.5 million in May.

write to Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com, Alistair MacDonald at alistair.macdonald@wsj.com and Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com

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https://www.wsj.com/articles/ukraine-russia-turkey-and-u-n-hold-talks-on-exporting-grain-blockaded-by-war-11657721132 Russia, Ukraine and Turkey Approach a Deal on Ukraine Grain Exports, Officials Say

Alley Einstein

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