BY DAILY SABAH
ISTANBUL JUN 08, 2022 – 11:53 AM GMT+3
Russia and Turkey on Wednesday voiced support for the creation of a safe maritime corridor in the Black Sea so Ukraine can export grain to global markets amid an escalating world food crisis. Turkey’s foreign minister said a U.N. plan to ensure the restart of shipments was reasonable and requires more talks with all sides to ensure ships would be safe.
Turkey is involved in efforts for the establishment of the U.N.-led mechanism that would free Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and allow as much as 25 million tons of grain sitting in silos to be shipped out. Turkey would facilitate and protect the transport of the grain in the Black Sea, officials have said.
Ankara, which has good relations with both Kyiv and Moscow, had previously said it is ready to take on a role within an “observation mechanism” based in Istanbul if a deal is reached.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu hosted his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Ankara for discussions focused on the proposal.
Çavuşoğlu said their meeting was fruitful, including a will to return to negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv for a possible cease-fire.
Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but the war and a Russian blockade of its ports have halted much of that flow, endangering food supplies to many developing countries. Many of those ports are now also heavily mined.
Ukraine’s government was not represented at the Ankara meeting but has expressed concerns that removing mines from its ports to facilitate grain exports could allow Russia to attack its southern coast.
Lavrov promised that Russia would not “abuse” its naval advantage if Ukraine’s ports were demined and would “take all necessary steps to ensure that the ships can leave there freely.”
“We state daily that we’re ready to guarantee the safety of vessels leaving Ukrainian ports and heading for (Turkish waters), we’re ready to do that in cooperation with our Turkish colleagues,” he said.
Russian and Turkish militaries are discussing the issue of clearing mines in Ukraine’s seaports to open a path for exports, Lavrov added.
Ukraine has said it needed “effective security guarantees” before it could start shipments, voicing concerns that Moscow could use the potential corridor to move on its southern port of Odessa.
Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine halted Kyiv’s Black Sea grain exports, threatening a global food crisis. The U.N. appealed to the two sides, as well as maritime neighbor and NATO member Turkey, to agree a corridor.
Moscow denies responsibility for the international food crisis, blaming Western sanctions. Any deal could involve a Turkish naval escort for tankers leaving Odessa and other Ukrainian ports – which are currently blockaded by Russia’s navy – and onward to Turkey’s straits and global markets.
The same corridor would also allow Russia to export food and fertilizer.
“As Turkey, we find this plan reasonable and see it as a feasible one,” Çavuşoğlu told a joint news conference with Lavrov.
The scheme, however, would require negotiation between Moscow and Kyiv, he added.
The Turkish minister also backed easing Western sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine if it participates in the U.N. plan, saying that seemed “quite legitimate.”
“If the whole world is in need of the products to be exported by Ukraine and the Russian Federation, then a method needs to be established,” he said, adding that he hoped “technical preparations” could be made “as soon as possible.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan discussed the creation of the corridor with both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin last week.
Ukraine has also called for security guarantees, such as a supply of weapons to defend against maritime threats and the participation of third-country naval forces.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday the Russian military would need to check commercial ships taking the grain to make sure they don’t carry weapons. He added that after they are loaded with grain, Russia would help escort the ships to international waters.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey said on Wednesday that no agreement to secure its grain exports via the Black Sea was possible without Kyiv’s involvement and accused Russia of putting forward unrealistic proposals such as checking vessels.
Vasyl Bodnar told an online briefing it was important for Kyiv for Turkey to continue mediating the matter and for it to keep talking to both Kyiv and Moscow.
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Tuesday that technical details were still being worked out.
“Our efforts are continuing concerning the technical planning on such issues as how it will be done, how the mines will be cleared, who will do it, how the corridor will be established and who will escort (ships),” Akar said.
Addressing the possibility of resumed peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow, Çavuşoğlu said Turkey was “much more optimistic.”
Turkey hosted previous talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials in March but since then little progress has been made.
“We see an optimistic atmosphere in terms of going back to the negotiation table,” Çavuşoğlu said, citing recent comments by Zelenskyy. He reiterated Ankara’s offer to oversee a meeting between Zelenskyy and Putin.
Lavrov said Russia was willing to hold further talks but accused Zelenskyy of “changing his position all the time” over conditions for a leaders’ summit.
Lavrov arrived in Turkey days after NATO members Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Montenegro reportedly refused to allow his plane to fly through their airspace to reach Serbia. Lavrov’s plane was able to fly directly to Turkey over the Black Sea.
Turkey has maintained its close ties to both Ukraine and Russia. It has criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but hasn’t joined international sanctions against Russia.