ISTANBUL — U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the first meeting in weeks between Russia and Ukraine took “a critical step forward” to ensure the export of desperately needed grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to help ease the global food crisis.
The U.N. chief said “more technical work will now be needed” to reach an agreement, “but the momentum is clear … I’m encouraged, but it’s not yet fully done.”
Guterres spoke in New York, hours after military officials from Russia, Ukraine and Turkey met with U.N. envoys in Istanbul to discuss unblocking millions of tons of grain — stuck in Ukraine because of the war — to be shipped to world markets and to enable Russia to send out grain and fertilizer.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the sides reached agreement concerning the “joint control” of vessels as they leave and arrive at ports and the safety of the transfer routes. A coordination center would be established in Istanbul and would include U.N., Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian officials, he said.
The parties would meet again in Turkey next week where details would be reviewed and agreements would be signed, he said.
Akar said the talks were held in a constructive atmosphere, adding: “We see that the parties are willing to solve this problem.”
The secretary-general has been pressing since early June for a package deal that will enable Ukraine to export grain and other food, not only by land but from blockaded Black Sea ports, and allow Russian food and fertilizer to enter world markets without restrictions.
“Today in Istanbul, we have seen a critical step, a step forward to ensuring the safe and secure export of Ukrainian food products through the Black Sea,” Guterres told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.
He called it “a ray of hope to ease human suffering and alleviate hunger around the world.”
The war has trapped about 22 million tons of grain inside Ukraine, according to Ukrainian
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. U.N., Turkish and other officials are scrambling for a solution that would empty the silos in time for the upcoming harvest in Ukraine. Some grain is being transported through Europe by rail, road and river, but the amount is small compared with the Black Sea routes.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says the war in Ukraine is endangering food supplies for many developing nations, raising food prices globally and could worsen hunger for up to 181 million people.
Russia said meanwhile, it had presented a package of proposals for a “practical and quick solution” to unblock the export of Ukrainian grain but did not elaborate.
Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but Russia’s invasion and war has disrupted production and halted shipments across the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
Turkey has offered to provide safe Black Sea corridors and worked with the U.N., Russia and Ukraine to reach an agreement.
Speaking before the talks, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told The Associated Press that grain exports from his country’s ports won’t resume without security guarantees to ship owners, cargo owners and to keep Ukraine as an independent nation.
Any agreement needs to ensure that Russia “will respect these corridors, they will not sneak into the harbor and attack ports or that they will not attack ports from the air with their missiles,” he said.
Russian and Ukrainian officials have traded accusations over the stuck grain shipments.
Moscow claims Ukraine’s heavily mined ports are causing the delay. Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged that Moscow wouldn’t use the corridors to launch an attack, if the sea mines were removed.
But Ukrainian officials have blamed a Russian naval blockade for holding up the exports and causing the global food crisis. They are skeptical of Putin’s pledge not to take advantage of cleared Black Sea corridors to mount attacks on Ukrainian ports, noting that he insisted repeatedly this year that he had no plans to invade Ukraine.
Ahead of the talks, a senior Russian diplomat said Moscow was willing to ensure safe navigation for ships to carry grain from Ukrainian ports but would press for its right to check the vessels for weapons.
Pyotr Ilyichev, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s department for ties with international organizations, said Russia’s military had repeatedly declared its willingness to allow safe shipping corridors in the Black Sea.
Seventy vessels from 16 countries have remained stuck in Ukrainian ports, Ilyichev said, alleging that Ukrainian authorities had barred them from departing.
“Our conditions are clear: We need to have a way to control and check the ships to prevent any attempts to smuggle weapons in, and Kyiv must refrain from any provocations,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Ilyichev as saying.
Guterres has worked for months to secure a deal that would allow Ukraine to export wheat and other commodities from Odesa, the country’s largest port, and also enable Russia to export its grain and fertilizer to global markets.
Western sanctions on Russia do not ban exports of food or fertilizer. But Moscow argues that Western sanctions on its banking and shipping industries make it impossible for Russia to export those goods and are scaring off foreign shipping companies.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Turkish ambassador last week after Turkish authorities briefly detained a Russian ship suspected of transporting stolen grain but allowed it to leave and return to a Russian port. A Turkish official said authorities were not able to determine that the ship carried stolen grain.
NATO-member Turkey has retained close ties to both Moscow and Ukraine.
Story by Ayse Wieting and Suzan Fraser. Associated Press writer Edith Lederer contributed to this report.