Ankara claims to be finalising a deal with Kiev and Moscow on the Ukrainian grain outlet

On the eve of Russian ministers Lavrov and Shoigu's trip to Turkey, and despite Ukraine's rejection of the terms of the pact, Ankara announces that a deal to resume Ukrainian grain and wheat exports is close

AFP/DANIEL MIHAILESCU  -   Workers take samples of maize from a loaded ship at pier 80 in the Black Sea port of Constanta, 3 May 2022

The threat of grain shortages resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine has become, along with insecurity and rising energy prices, one of the biggest problems facing not only the European Union, but also much of the international community. However, this issue could soon be solved if the UN-backed plan, which was drawn up by the United Nations and sponsored by Turkey, succeeds with the agreement of Russia and Ukraine. 

According to Hulusi Akar, the Ottoman defence minister, speaking to Turkish media on Monday night - in remarks embargoed until Tuesday - the authorities in Ankara are getting closer to reaching a plan to restore maritime exports of Ukrainian grain and wheat, even if the conflict continues in part of the country. "We are making efforts to conclude this as soon as possible".

PHOTO/AP - Turkish Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar

"Much progress has been made on the issue", although "we are still working on technical planning issues", the minister added, referring to the demining of the ports of Odessa and other regions along the Ukrainian coast, as well as permits for Russia to inspect the cargoes of ships, which has aroused strong misgivings on the Ukrainian side. 

The pre-agreement negotiated mainly between Ankara and Moscow would designate Turkey as the one in charge of clearing Black Sea ports and escorting ships carrying Ukrainian grain and food through the safe corridor, which, to date, would only apply to the ports of Odessa. Once in neutral waters, Ukrainian cargo ships would be searched by Russian units and, "beyond the Bosporus, escorted by Russian warships to ensure their safe passage and avoid provocations", Kremlin sources explained to the daily Izvestia. 

PHOTO/PAVEL GOLOVKIN via REUTERS - Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in Ankara, Turkey September 16, 2019

According to one of the nine telephone conversations between Putin and Erdogan in recent months, the Kremlin leader had already expressed his willingness "to facilitate the unimpeded maritime transit of goods", including "the export of grain from Ukrainian ports". He did not specify whether he was referring only to Russian-controlled ports, such as Berdiansk, Kherson and Mariupol, or also to Kiev-controlled ones, such as Odessa. 

This proposal, so far the only one accepted by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been developed in cooperation with the UN - with the aim of avoiding a global food crisis - and is expected to be ratified in the middle of this week, when the Turkish foreign and defence ministers - Mevlut Çavuşoğlu and Hulusi Akar - will receive their Russian counterparts, Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu, respectively, in Ankara. 

REUTERS/VALENTYN OGIRENKO - Harvesting wheat near the village of Hrebeni in the Kiev region

"The ministers will exchange views on the Ukrainian crisis and the prospects for the resumption of Russian-Ukrainian peace negotiations," a Russian diplomatic statement said, avoiding giving details about the possible agreement on the grain. The Turkish authorities did, however, and hope to end the meeting with news of an agreement guaranteeing grain and other food exports from Ukraine.  

Thus, between 8 and 9 June, Turkey will once again become the stage for possible progress towards a resolution of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, as was the case on 10 March with the meeting between Dmitro Kuleba and Sergei Lavrov in Antalya. In this line, Turkey will continue to consolidate itself as a mediator in the war, which, beyond assuming its role in the "observation mechanisms" of the corridor, could aspire to the eventual establishment of a centre for the control and coordination of cargoes in Istanbul. 

Turkish Foreign Ministry via REUTERS - Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba attend their meeting in Antalya, Turkey March 10, 2022
A pre-agreement that Kiev does not recognise

However, the obvious close relations between Ankara and Moscow, as well as the possibility of Russian forces being able to monitor the contents of Ukrainian cargo ships (supposedly to prevent arms trafficking) and escort them through neutral waters, have met with strong opposition from negotiators and the Kiev authorities. As reported by the Bloomberg news agency, sources present at the negotiations have stated that Ukraine rejects the content of the pre-agreement, as it also fears that by neutralising Odessa's coastal defences, Moscow will take the opportunity to reinforce its attacks on the port city. 

"Putin says he will not use trade routes to attack Odessa, but he also assured us that he was not planning to invade our country. His words are worthless," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba posted on his official Twitter account.