Turkey Notes Progress in Talks on Stalled Ukrainian Wheat Exports

Turkish officials say there is a potential breakthrough in efforts to release Ukrainian grain to world markets as global food prices soar amid Russia’s war with Ukraine. Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, said an agreement is likely to be announced soon following four-way talks Wednesday among Russian, Ukrainian, United Nations, and Turkish officials in Istanbul.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in a statement after Wednesday’s talks that a deal to allow the release of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain could come as early as next week.

Akar said Turkey would play a pivotal role in checking shipments in harbors and guaranteeing the safety of Black Sea export routes. In addition, a coordination center with Ukraine, Russia, and the United Nations for exporting grain would be set up in Turkey, he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, while welcoming the process, also cautioned Wednesday that this is not yet a done deal.

“More technical work will now be needed to materialize today’s progress. But the momentum is clear,” he said.

Trust has been a key stumbling block in months of diplomatic efforts to reach a deal. Kyiv has said it fears that if it de-mines its ports to allow cargo ships to export grain, Russian forces will use that move to their advantage and attack. The grain has been stuck amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Aaron Stein of Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute said trust and international sanctions on Russia have been the main obstacles.

“This food corridor would require the Ukrainians to remove mines from seaports. They were put there for a reason to keep Russians from invading their country. And there is no appetite whatsoever to lift sanctions, and that is the Russian demand, and that is not going to happen,” said Stein.

The Reuters news agency quotes a U.N. official speaking anonymously as saying that most of the sticking points have been overcome, without giving details.

Moscow has so far not commented on the Istanbul talks.

Meanwhile, the U.N. warns that unless tens of millions of tons of grain stuck in Ukrainian ports are released, world food prices will continue to climb, threatening famine across the globe.

Ukraine is a leading wheat exporter, and nations in Africa are heavily dependent on Ukrainian grain. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine is determined to reach a deal.

Zelenskyy said his government is putting significant effort into resuming the supply of food to the world market. He said he is grateful to the United Nations and Turkey for their efforts.

The progress at the Istanbul talks has underlined Turkey’s position as a critical facilitator in negotiations between the warring parties, said Sinan Ulgen of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, a research organization in Istanbul.

“President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan has been careful to highlight that Turkey wants to maintain relations with both sides. So, as a result of this balanced policy, Turkey has been trying to carve out a space for diplomatic influence as a facilitator or potentially as a mediator,” said Ulgen.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has close ties with his Ukrainian and Russian counterparts. Ahead of the Istanbul talks, the Turkish leader spoke with Zelenskyy. Next week, the Turkish leader is scheduled to meet face-to face with President Vladimir Putin in Tehran for talks that could be key to finalizing any deal to get Ukrainian grain back on world markets. 

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