Delegations from Ukraine, Russia and Turkey met with United Nations representatives in Istanbul on July 13 for the first time to discuss the safe export of grain, as Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports persists and fears of a global food crisis continue to mount.
After much anticipation, Turkey’s Defense Ministry announced the four-way meeting lasted an hour and a half, without providing concrete details on any outcome of the negotiations.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said that there has been “some progress” in the negotiations.
Following the meeting, Turkish news agency Anadolu quoted Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar who said “the participants found common ground with regards to the technical issues, such as navigational safety on transfer routes and joint controls at entry and exit of ports.”
Hulusi also said representatives of Ukraine and Russia are set to meet in Turkey next week to review the details and sign the agreement, “making the deal official,” without saying what the deal entailed exactly.
UN chief Antonio Guterres told reporters following the negotiations that "hopefully we'll be able to have a final agreement" next week, saying: "I'm optimistic, but it's not yet fully done," Reuters reported.
The stakes of the talks are high. They come as Russia’s war in Ukraine threatens to push millions across the world to the brink of starvation as the supply decreases and food prices soar. And negotiations thus far have failed to yield results, despite attempts by Turkey, the UN, as well as European and American officials.
According to estimates, 22 million tons of grain are currently trapped in Ukraine as a result of Russia’s naval blockade in the Black Sea. By fall, that number may reach 60 million.
Ukraine is the fourth largest exporter of grain, which has serious implications for countries, especially African countries, that rely on these imports and where looming famines have been reported.
According to UN data, more than 18.4 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are now facing critical levels of food insecurity.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion began on Feb. 24, Turkey has tried to position itself as a mediator based on its ties with both Ukraine and Russia. But experts have raised questions on Istanbul’s role in the conflict, with many showing distrust.
Leaders the world over have also called for international efforts to release the grain trapped in Ukraine, to no avail. In a frantic effort to get grain out of Ukraine, diplomats have turned to alternatives, which include transporting the grain overland or through Ukraine’s Danube River ports.
But these solutions have been too slow and small-scale to address the challenge of exporting blocked grain. Ukraine’s railway infrastructure, unlike its seaports, is not equipped to handle all of the grain the country produces for international markets. And Ukraine’s ports on the Danube are not equipped for the quantity of vessels required to export grain.
Negotiations have also been bogged down by what diplomats have called logistical issues. Calls have also been made to demine Ukrainian waters to allow for the safe passage of grain.
But Ukrainian officials reject these proposals, saying that demining the seas around Ukraine's ports would leave them vulnerable to amphibious Russian attacks.
Despite negotiations, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has previously expressed skepticism that they will lead to meaningful results as Russia’s blockade gives it leverage in talks, and strangles Ukraine’s economy.
Kuleba has also told Associated Press that Ukraine will not allow grain exports unless the country has security guarantees for ship and cargo owners and Ukraine is recognized by Russia as an independent nation.
Which is why many have said the only way to free Ukrainian grain is by defeating Russia militarily, liberating Ukraine’s currently-occupied coastal cities, like Kherson and Mariupol, and ending the war.
“This is why we are asking and requesting our partners to give us weapons to do this, to defeat Russia – it’s the only way to solve the problem,” Agricultural Minister Mykola Solskyi previously told the Kyiv Independent.