Russia and Ukraine seek to break grain impasse in Turkey
Ukraine is a vital exporter of wheat and grains such as barley and maize.
ISTANBUL (AFP) - Russia and Ukraine were due Wednesday to hold their first talks with UN and Turkish officials aimed at breaking a months-long impasse over grain exports that has seen food prices soar and millions face hunger.
The high-stakes meeting in Istanbul comes with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine showing no signs of abating and the sides locked in a furious long-range shooting battle that is destroying towns and leaving people with nothing.
"You can’t run away from war and you never know where it will find you," 60-year-old agronomist Lyubov Mozhayeva said while picking up a humanitarian food package in the partially destroyed frontline city of Bakhmut.
The first face-to-face talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations since another meeting in Istanbul on March 29 comes with the threat of food shortages spreading across the poorest parts of the world.
Ukraine is a vital exporter of wheat and grains such as barley and maize. It has also supplied nearly half of all the sunflower oil traded on global markets.
But shipments across the Black Sea have been blocked by Russian warships and mines Kyiv has laid to avert a feared amphibious assault.
- ‘Two steps from agreement’ -
The Istanbul negotiations are being complicated by growing suspicions that Russia is trying to export grain it has stolen from Ukrainian farmers in regions under its control.
US space agency data released last week showed 22 percent of Ukraine’s farmland falling under Russian control since the February 24 invasion.
The two sides say they have made progress but are sticking to firm demands that could collapse the talks.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv was "two steps from an agreement with Russia".
"We are in the final stages and everything now depends on Russia," he told Spain’s El Pais newspaper.
Russia said its requirements included the right to "search the ships to avoid the contraband of weapons" -- a demand rejected by Kyiv.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tried on Tuesday to play down expectations of an imminent breakthrough.
"We are working hard indeed, but there is still a way to go," the UN chief told reporters.
- Grain corridors -
NATO member Turkey has been using its good relations with both the Kremlin and Kyiv to try and broker an agreement on a safe way to deliver the grain.
Turkey says it has 20 merchant ships waiting in the region that could be quickly loaded and sent to world markets.
A plan by the UN proposes the ships follow safe "corridors" that run between the known location of mines.
Kyiv has also asked that its vessels be accompanied by warships from a friendly country such as Turkey.
Experts say de-mining the Black Sea is a complex operation that could take months -- too long to address the growing global food crisis.
Kuleba said he did not think Moscow actually wanted to reach an agreement because proceeds from grain sales would help support a Western-backed government in Kyiv that the Kremlin brands as "Nazis".
"They know that if we start to export, we will get proceeds from world markets, and this will make us stronger," Kuleba said.
- ‘Operational pause’ -
The talks in Istanbul precede a meeting in Tehran next Tuesday between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
The war in Ukraine has contributed to Turkey’s mounting economic problems and further complicated Erdogan’s path to a third decade in power in elections due within the next year.
Erdogan’s ultimate goal is to bring Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky down to Istanbul for talks aimed at pausing the fighting and launching formal peace talks.
But the Ukrainian army warned this week that Russia was preparing to stage its heaviest attack yet on the Donetsk region -- the larger of the two areas comprising the Donbas war zone.
The Russian army has not conducted any major ground offensives since taking the last points of Ukrainian resistance in the war zone’s smaller Lugansk region at the start of the month.
Analysts believe the Russians are taking an "operational pause" during which they are rearming and regrouping forces before launching an assault on Sloviansk and Kramatorsk -- Ukraine’s administrative centre for the east.
Ukraine is trying to counter the Russians by staging increasingly potent attacks with new US and European rocket systems targeting arms depots.
US officials believe the Russians are trying to recoup their losses by negotiating to acquire hundreds of combat drones from Iran.