Ukraine targets grain exports breakthrough at four-way talks

Ukraine said on Wednesday that an agreement to resume grain exports blocked by Russia appeared close as four-way talks began in Turkey, raising hopes of an end to a standoff that has exposed millions to the risk of starvation.

Kyiv believed a deal was just “two steps away”, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was quoted as saying, though other participants seemed less optimistic.

Several Ukrainian cities meanwhile reported heavy Russian shelling and, while not linking a grain deal to progress in talks to end the war, Kuleba was downbeat on prospects for peace.

More than 20 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain are stuck in silos at the Black Sea port of Odesa and dozens of ships have been stranded due to Russia’s blockade, part of what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine but which Kyiv and the West say is an unjustified war of aggression.

The talks, in Istanbul between Ukrainian, Russian, Turkish and UN officials, got under way behind closed doors at 1000 GMT at an undisclosed location.

Kuleba told Spanish newspaper El Pais ahead of their resumption: “We are two steps away from a deal with Russia. We are in the final phase and now everything depends on Russia.”

Ukraine and Russia are major global wheat suppliers. Russia is also a large fertilizer exporter and Ukraine a significant producer of corn and sunflower oil, so clinching a deal to unblock exports is seen as vital for food security, notably among developing nations, and for stabilising markets.

TERRITORY NON-NEGOTIABLE, SAYS KYIV

The talks took place as Ukrainian cities reported sustained Russian shelling, including across the Donetsk region, which Moscow aims to take full control of to try to complete its seizure of the industrialised Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, much of which was controlled by separatists – labelled Russian puppets by Kyiv – before the war.

Russia also struck 28 settlements in the Mykolaiv region bordering the Black Sea, killing at least five civilians, according to Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office.

And two Russian missiles struck an industrial facility in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia, the region’s council said on the Telegram messaging service. There was no immediate word on any casualties.

Russia, which says it does not target civilians, said on Wednesday it had shot down four Ukrainian military jets, an assertion the Ukrainian air force dismissed as propaganda.

Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield accounts.

As the Istanbul talks got under way, Foreign Minister Kuleba told a briefing that Ukraine’s overall stance on the war had not changed.

He confirmed there were still no peace talks taking place between Moscow and Kyiv and ruled out ceding territory to Russia as part of any future deal.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiyy told a conference in Asia via videolink that Russia had launched 2,960 missiles on Ukraine’s cities so far.

“Of course this is Russia’s tactic… directed at chasing people out of our cities, and so that every Ukrainian feels fear before the terrorist state,” he said.

‘OBSTACLES’ CAUSED BY SANCTIONS

On grain, Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of exacerbating a global food crisis by complicating attempts to supply poorer nations with grain and of fuelling inflation.

Moscow has blamed Ukraine, accusing it of refusing to remove mines that it scattered around its coastline to protect itself from Russia’s attack and that represent a threat to shipping.

Russia has also hit out at the West for imposing sanctions on a range of sectors that make it harder for Russia to fund and insure its own maritime freight services.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Tuesday that participants in the Istanbul talks were “working hard indeed” but there that there was still a way to go to reach a deal.

“Many people are talking about it. We prefer to try and do it,” he told reporters.

Diplomats say details of the plan under discussion include an idea for Ukrainian vessels to guide grain ships in and out through mined port waters; Russia agreeing to a truce while shipments move; and Turkey – supported by the United Nations – inspecting ships to allay Russian fears of weapons smuggling.

Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Pyotr Ilyichev, head of the international organisations department at the Russian foreign ministry, as saying that Russia wanted to control and inspect vessels to rule out smuggling.

He said Russia was ready to facilitate the navigation of foreign commercial vessels to export Ukrainian grain.

Russian news agency RIA quoted an unnamed diplomatic source as saying Russia’s demands included the removal of “obstacles to exports” created by Western sanctions, citing the areas “of shipping insurance, logistics, transportation services and banking operations.”

Russia has continued to export grain since the war started on February 24 but there is a lack of large vessels as many owners are afraid to send them to the region. Cost of freight and insurance are also up sharply.

Ukraine sparked hopes on Tuesday for an increase in grain exports despite Russia’s blockade following the reopening of the Bystre canal, which provides access to small inland river ports.

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