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Kiev and Moscow meet in Turkey to negotiate Ukrainian grain exports

Ukraine announces the passage of 16 commercial ships through the mouth of the Bystre River into the Danube, just a day before its meeting with Russia and Turkey, under UN auspices, to make progress in grain negotiations
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AFP/TURKISH MINISTRY OF DEFENCE PRESS OFFICE  -   This photograph taken and released on 13 July 2022 by the press office of the Turkish Ministry of Defence shows the military delegations of the United Nations (UN), Turkey, Ukraine and Russia during their quadripartite meeting in Istanbul

Turkey is once again trying to take part in another attempt to curb the world's food crisis. This Wednesday, the Turkish city of Istanbul hosted the meeting with which Kiev and Moscow aim to reactivate negotiations and put an end, once and for all, to the blockade of maritime exports of Ukrainian grain from the port of Odessa. NATO member Ankara's participation in this scenario is due to its authority over Black Sea maritime traffic through the Bosphorus Strait. 

For several months now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been trying to mediate between the two sides in the conflict, seeking a possible truce, a rapprochement of positions, or, as on this occasion, a reactivation of grain exports. For the latter purpose, the Turkish leader has tried to prepare both powers through bilateral talks on Monday with his Ukrainian and Russian counterparts, Volodymir Zelenki and Vladimir Putin, respectively. Only a day later, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar made public the meeting on 13 July, which he hosted. 

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REUTERS/IGOR TKACHENKO - A truck driver unloads barley grain at a warehouse as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Odessa region, Ukraine June 22, 2022

After a meeting between Turkish and Ukrainian representatives, the meeting - sponsored by UN observers - brought together dozens of officials, diplomats and military experts from the Kiev, Moscow and Ankara delegations. However, according to Turkish media outlets such as CNNTürk, almost all details of the meeting have been kept secret at the request of the parties. 

And although the Turkish Defence Ministry was expected to report on the results at the end of the summit, after more than three hours of talks, it only confirmed the end of the meeting in a brief communiqué. 

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PHOTO/ TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE - A handout photo taken and released on September 29, 2021 by the Turkish presidential press service shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin posing before their meeting in Sochi
The keys to the negotiations 

One of the key issues that marked the four-way meeting was Moscow's demand to inspect and control ships leaving Ukrainian ports. We have confirmed more than once at all levels, including publicly, that we are ready to help foreign merchant ships to sail out of Ukrainian grain", said Pyotr Ilichov, head of the Kremlin's foreign ministry's department for international organisations, also reiterating that "we are ready to help foreign merchant ships to leave Ukrainian grain". 

"But for us the obvious conditions are still the possibility of controlling and inspecting ships to exclude arms smuggling, and for Kiev to renounce provocations," he added. For this reason, the Russian delegation has presented a package of proposals which, despite having been announced by Defence Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov, have not been made public to the media. 

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PHOTO/ From ЯдвигаВереск - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 - The Port of Odessa (the largest port of Ukraine and one of the most important ports of the Black Sea basin, with a total annual traffic capacity of 40 million tons (15 million tons of dry cargo and 25 million tons of liquid cargo)

For its part, in addition to rejecting Moscow's demands, Kiev has also asked for guarantees. In the face of Russia's demands for the demining of the port of Odessa, Ukraine is demanding the commitment of the parties, especially Turkey and the UN, to ensure the safety of the ships. Attacks on 'critical infrastructure facilities and civilian vessels in the Black Sea', which Ukraine claims the Kremlin continues to carry out, only fuel Kiev's mistrust of Russia's 'goodwill'. The country is therefore demanding that possible scenarios be considered, such as Turkish escorts for Ukrainian ships, or the sponsorship of the United Nations over the whole process, given that its secretary general, Antonio Guterres, is personally involved in this issue. 

Moreover, according to the New York Times, according to statements by a diplomat close to the meeting, the agreement would include a Russian commitment not to fire on the ships - although this would be a temporary promise and limited to ships carrying grain -, as well as a guarantee to help Moscow export fertilisers and grain. This is something for which international powers, such as the EU, would have to remove fertiliser sanctions, and which is unclear.  

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AFP/MIGUEL MEDINA - Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenski

Russia's withdrawal from the strategic Snake Island in the Black Sea, located some 45 kilometres off the coasts of Ukraine and Romania, was also a key factor in the meeting. The withdrawal of Kremlin troops has allowed Kiev to once again use the Bystroye estuary - at the mouth of the Danube River in the Black Sea - to export some Ukrainian grain from the ports of Izmail, Reni and Ust-Dunaisk. Before regaining control of these territories, Ukraine had to use the Danube ports via the Romanian Sulina channel, which could only receive up to four ships a day, instead of the eight that would have been needed. According to the Ukrainian authorities, this resulted in large backlogs of ships and heavy congestion.

Alternative channels 

Ukraine's announcement on Tuesday of an increase in grain exports has raised the hopes of the international community. According to Deputy Infrastructure Minister Yuriy Vaskov, in a ministerial statement, "in the last four days, 16 ships have passed through the mouth of the Bystroye River" to the Danube, and are waiting to be loaded with grain. And as many as 135 export vessels are en route over the next few days. 

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REUTERS/IGOR TKACHENKO - Grain cars are shown at a grain terminal as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in the Odessa region of Ukraine, June 22, 2022

Last June, Ukraine managed to export about two and a half million tonnes of grain via the Danube river routes, rail and road checkpoints to the western border, but this is insufficient to meet the need for 8 million tonnes. For this reason, as well as the need for more space in view of the impending harvest season, Ukraine continues to insist on the unblocking of seaports to release the more than 22 million tonnes of trapped grain. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) recently warned that hundreds of millions of people are at risk of suffering "hunger at critical levels" in the coming months due to increased food insecurity in Africa and the Middle East, largely caused by these consequences of the war in Ukraine. Moreover, according to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the lack of fertilisers could reduce cereal production in the region by 20 percent.