TOP STORIES Mission impossible? Officials fight for free grain in...

Mission impossible? Officials fight for free grain in Ukraine

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BRUSSELS. Russian and Ukrainian negotiators are due to meet Wednesday in Istanbul as part of an increasingly desperate attempt to release massive amounts of grain from Ukrainian ports and ship it to a world facing growing hunger.

Officials have been trying for months to break the deadlock without provoking an escalation of war or, worse, a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO. Wednesday’s meeting gives hope for a breakthrough, but in interviews more than half a dozen officials directly involved in or informed of the plans cited obstacles ranging from the mundane to the outright “Mission Impossible.
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The proposed alternatives, transporting grain by land or across the Danube River, proved too slow, cumbersome and on a small scale to solve the problem of more than 22 million tons of grain stuck in Odessa and other Black Sea ports blocked by Russian warships.

“After all these negotiations, the military delegations of the Ministries of Defense of Turkey, the Russian Federation and Ukraine and the UN delegation will meet tomorrow in Istanbul regarding the safe transportation of grain waiting in the ports of Ukraine by sea to the international market,” the Turkish Defense Minister said. This was announced on Tuesday by Hulusi Akar, who will lead the session.

Urgency is real. If grain is not already delivered to ports and silos in the coming weeks, this will begin to hamper the summer harvest, as farmers will have nowhere to store fresh crops.

The war in Ukraine is already contributing to a global food crisis that has sent the prices of vital commodities such as wheat and barley to historic highs.

The most immediate and serious impact is a looming famine in the Horn of Africa, where years of lack of rain are already devastating communities in Somalia and parts of neighboring countries. Ukraine, the world’s fourth largest grain exporter, is a key source for this region.

International diplomatic efforts have been hampered by issues including bypassing mines in the Black Sea, organizing screenings of cargo at sea, and, most importantly, convincing the Kremlin that it is interested in playing.

According to the officials interviewed, dozens of officials, experts and diplomats are involved in the talks and plans.

The European Union is concerned that efforts by the UN and Turkey will not bring immediate results, officials said, and is trying to make minor improvements to half a dozen small land and river routes from Ukraine to friendly neighboring countries.

He sent more than 100 officials to help the efforts of Romania, Poland, Moldova and Lithuania to transport grain by rail, trucks and river barges to the ports of Constanta in Romania, Gdansk in Poland and Klaipeda in Lithuania.

These efforts were hampered by logistical problems, including different gauges used in Ukraine and EU countries, expired locomotive licenses, and dredging required for the Danube River.

Critics of the approach say it is extremely labor intensive and ultimately a drop in the bucket. European Union officials acknowledge that, at best, these efforts could move as little as 5 million tons a month.

The discussed UN-Turkey plan will require a huge level of trust between Ukraine and Russia – a scarce commodity in itself – as well as flawless execution on a large scale.

At a meeting of the Group of 7 industrialized countries in Germany late last month, António Guterres, UN secretary-general, told leaders he was optimistic that a breakthrough was not far off within a week or ten days, according to several officials briefed about the negotiations. or who overheard. This was over two weeks ago.

According to three senior government officials, Mr. Guterres said the United Nations had overcome a key obstacle to opening sea lanes for ships carrying grain from Odessa: Ukraine had mined its own ports to deter a Russian invasion.

The Ukrainian government requested security guarantees that the Russians would not attack if some of the mines were removed. They were looking for long-range missiles to hit Russian submarines a few miles offshore, as well as means of escorting NATO grain carriers.

Instead, Mr. Guterres told G-7 leaders that the Ukrainians, who had mapped the mines, agreed to remove only some of them and instruct their Navy or Coast Guard captains to guide cargo ships into international waters, officials said. The foreign crews then took over and delivered the ships to Istanbul and then proceeded to other destinations.

The key stumbling block so far has been the issue of searches of ships and cargo: the Russian side has demanded that it alone conduct searches to make sure the ships are carrying only grain and empty when they return, rather than taking any weapons back to Ukraine. One diplomat from a UN Security Council country said a compromise was being worked out with the Turkish officials conducting the checks.

A diplomat who spoke to reporters in the background said the proposed deal included a Russian guarantee not to fire on the ships. But that promise would only be for grain shipments and would likely be limited in time, the diplomat said, adding that an agreement could be reached by the end of the week.

The UN-Turkish talks also include a pledge to help Russia, another major food exporter, supply fertilizer and grain. To do this, the European Union may need to lift sanctions on Russian fertilizers, which it has not disclosed about its plans.

Russian grain is not subject to sanctions, but Russia says the cost of its insurance and shipping has skyrocketed since its invasion of Ukraine and its declaration of the Black Sea as a war zone.

“The problem is that these countries have imposed sanctions on some of our seaports and created difficulties with cargo insurance and freight,” Putin said on June 30 during a meeting with the Indonesian president in the Kremlin.

“All these issues are being discussed with the direct participation of UN Secretary-General Guterres,” he added. transcript published on the Kremlin website. “We are in constant working contact with the top officials of the Russian government with our colleagues in the UN”

But Western officials place the blame solely on Russia, not least because its troops have destroyed or looted grain stocks in Ukraine and even attempted to sell them abroad. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Putin is using famine in developing countries as a weapon.

At the G-20 meeting last week in Bali, Indonesia, Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken said, “Over and over again we have heard calls from all over the world. presented in this room for Russia to open the Black Sea for the supply of Ukrainian grain. The United States supports the efforts of Turkey and the UN to reach a compromise, he added, “and we need Russia to cooperate fully with them.”

The UN said it could not comment on the details of the talks due to their sensitive nature and the possibility of them breaking down at the last minute, but according to spokesman Farhan Haq, information about the talks could appear as early as Wednesday.

“Our discussions are ongoing and we hope they will bear fruit, but we cannot yet comment on where we are,” Mr Haq said.

Report has been provided Farnaz Fassihi in New York; Valerie Hopkins in Tivat, Montenegro; Michael Crowley in Bali, Indonesia; as well as East Safak In the Stambul.

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