UN says that Russia and Ukraine are making good progress in grain negotiations

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Russia and Ukraine have made “very substantive progress” on a plan to avert a global food crisis by securing the safe passage of millions of tonnes of grain through the Black Sea, the head of the United Nations said.

After a first round of talks in Istanbul, UN secretary-general António Guterres pointed to “substantive agreement on many aspects” of a mechanism to enable cargo ships to transport an estimated 20mn tonnes of grain trapped in Ukraine as a result of a Russian blockade of the country’s ports in the wake of its invasion.

Guterres suggested that a final agreement could be reached by next week, when UN-backed negotiations are due to begin again.

“Hopefully we will be able to have a final agreement,” he said, while warning that it would require “a lot of goodwill and commitment” by the parties. “They’ve shown it, I’m encouraged, I’m optimistic,” he said. “But it’s not yet fully done.”

Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defence minister, said the talks — which were attended by UN representatives as well as Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian military delegations — had resulted in a commitment from all four parties to set up a joint co-ordination centre in Istanbul. Turkey’s largest city straddles the Bosphorus strait, a key shipping route that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

Delegations from the UN, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia during their four-party meeting on grain supplies in Istanbul © Turkish Defence Ministry/AFP/Getty Images

Akar said they had also agreed on “fundamental technical details” including joint checks on ships entering and exiting Ukrainian ports and the need to secure transit routes.

He didn’t give details about how these mechanisms would operate or be monitored.

After months of trying to bring both sides together, UN-backed negotiations are now in place. They seek to find a way for safe passage of barley, wheat, and corn that has been trapped in silos at Ukrainian ports blocked by Russia’s navy.

The problem has gained growing urgency as Ukraine’s summer harvest has begun, with warnings that millions of tonnes of grain could go to waste if storage facilities are not emptied so newly-harvested crops can be stockpiled.

Turkey’s head of state Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has close relations with both Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy, spoke on Monday with both leaders in an apparent bid to persuade them to send delegations. Guterres thanked Turkish officials for their “outstanding efforts” to convene the talks.

Before Wednesday’s negotiations, diplomats had been cautious about the prospects of a breakthrough, with one western official warning that it was difficult to understand the “game plan” of the “very mercurial and unpredictable” Putin.

Kyiv had opposed many of Moscow’s previously stated conditions for a deal, which included a demand to inspect vessels entering and exiting Ukrainian ports — a suggestion Ukrainian officials described as an attempt by Russia to dominate the Black Sea.

Guterres said it was important to remember that the grain negotiations were taking place “in the midst of a bloody conflict”, adding: “People are still dying, fighting is still raging, but hopeful news from Istanbul shows the importance of dialogue.”

While previous attempts to reach a deal to end the war in Ukraine collapsed after news emerged of atrocities committed by Russian armed forces, the UN chief said he hoped all sides could take inspiration from the progress of the grain talks “to help light a way to desperately needed negotiated solution for peace”.

He warned, however, that while progress in Istanbul “demonstrated that the parties are able to have a constructive dialogue . . . for peace we still have a long way to go”.

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