The European Union’s chief diplomat on Monday expressed hope that diplomatic efforts led by Turkey to help export grain from Ukraine would result in an agreement this week, easing a growing global food crisis.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s remarks come as officials from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations are due to meet again this week to discuss resuming Ukraine’s Black Sea grain exports.
Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports threatens grain supplies to tens of thousands of people vulnerable to starvation and urged that it must end, Borrell said.
“I have a hope that this week it will be possible to reach an agreement to de-block Odessa and other Ukrainian ports,” Borell told reports.
“The life of thousands, more than thousands, tens of thousands of people depends on this agreement. It is not a diplomatic game. It is an issue of life or death for many,” he warned.
Turkey last week announced a deal with Ukraine, Russia and the United Nations aimed at resuming Ukrainian grain exports, raising prospects for an end to a standoff that has exposed millions to the risk of starvation.
Ankara announced that the parties would return this week to sign the agreement.
United Nations chief Antonio Guterres called last week’s summit a “critical step forward” but said there was still “a long way to go” before there would be peace talks to end the war.
The meeting in Istanbul marked the Russian and Ukrainian governments’ first face-to-face talks since another meeting in the Turkish metropolis in late March.
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar on Monday said there was an agreement on “a plan, general principles” regarding the export corridor, and added a meeting between all parties to discuss details was “probable” this week.
Several media reports said the talks could be held as soon as Wednesday.
Akar said technical matters like forming a monitoring center in Istanbul, identifying safe routes, and checkpoints at port exits and entries were on the agenda.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February and has captured some Black Sea ports and bombarded others, including the key grain exporting outlet in the city of Odessa.
Ukraine has also mined the approaches to some of its ports to protect them from Russian assault.
But Ukraine’s farms are a major source of grain for the world market, in particular in the Middle East and Africa, where food supplies are critically tight.
“The most worrisome thing is the lack of food in many countries around the world, and there is no food because Russia is blocking the export of Ukrainian grain,” Borrell said.
Russia’s invasion and blockade of Ukraine’s ports has stalled exports, leaving dozens of ships stranded and about 22 million tons of grain stuck in silos in Ukraine.
Moscow has denied responsibility for worsening the food crisis, blaming instead a chilling effect from Western sanctions for slowing its own food and fertilizer exports and Ukraine for mining its Black Sea ports.
Ukraine and Russia are major global wheat suppliers, and Russia is also a large fertilizer exporter, while Ukraine is a significant producer of corn and sunflower oil.
Borell said that Ukraine’s European allies would do what they can to help Kyiv export its grain through overland routes and across the Danube, but warned that the ports were key.
“So, I hope – and I think I have a hope – that this week it will be possible to reach an agreement to de-block this and other Ukrainian ports,” he noted, referring to Odessa and the Turkish-brokered deal.
And he said that if Wednesday’s U.N. talks failed, Brussels would continue to blame Russia for using the threat of starvation as “a weapon” in its conflict.
NATO member Turkey – on speaking terms with both Russia and Ukraine – has spearheaded efforts to resume the grain deliveries.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has tried to use his good relations with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and Kyiv’s leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy to find a solution and continue negotiations about Ukraine.
Erdoğan is set to meet Putin for the first time since Russia’s invasion when the two leaders are hosted by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran on Tuesday.
The talks are officially intended to focus on the situation in war-ravaged Syria. But the Kremlin said Putin and Erdoğan will also hold a separate meeting that is almost certain to focus heavily on Ukraine.
Turkish officials say they have 20 merchant ships waiting in the Black Sea that could be loaded quickly with Ukrainian grain.
Borrell spoke as he arrived at a meeting in Brussels of EU foreign ministers to discuss closing loopholes in their sanctions regime to punish Russia and look at ways to add a ban on gold exports in hopes that the measures might finally start to have a decisive impact on the war in Ukraine.
“We are not going to stop supporting Ukraine (or) putting sanctions on Russia,” Borrell said.
At the moment, “the most important thing is a ban on Russian gold,” he noted. Gold is Moscow’s second-largest export industry after energy.
The G-7 group of leading industrial nations last month already committed to a gold ban, arguing that Russia has used its gold to back up its currency to circumvent the impact of several rounds of sanctions that nations around the world had already imposed on Moscow.
The 27 ministers were also to assess how they can tighten controls on exports of high technology to Russia for a possible decision later in the week.
On top of the restrictive measures, the ministers were also seen addressing plans to boost military aid to Ukraine and will be briefed on the latest developments through a videoconference with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.