Matter of ‘life or death’: EU sees Turkey-mediated grain deal this week
The European Union’s chief diplomat on Monday expressed hope that diplomatic efforts led by Turkey to help export grain from Ukraine would bring an agreement this week, easing a growing global food crisis.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports threatens grain supplies to tens of thousands of people vulnerable to starvation and urged that it must end.
“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 blocked since Moscow launched its invasion in February, raising prospects for an end to a standoff that has exposed millions to the risk of starvation.
Turkey announced that the parties would return this week to sign the deal.
Russian and Ukrainian negotiators will meet Turkish and U.N. diplomats in Istanbul on Wednesday, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported on Monday.
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 Feb. 24 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.
Turkish officials say they have 20 merchant ships waiting in the Black Sea that could be loaded quickly with Ukrainian grain.
But a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson has stressed that Moscow would attend the meeting with a list of firm demands – including the right to search grain ships for weapons.
Ukraine has its own list of demands for security guarantees and has stressed the importance of the U.N.’s role in the talks.
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.
Borrell said that at the moment “the most important thing is a ban on Russian gold,” which 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 will also 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 will also assess plans to boost military aid to Ukraine, and will be briefed on the latest developments through a videoconference with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.