Russian and Ukrainian negotiators have agreed a deal to export millions of tonnes of stranded grain, Turkey has announced, and will meet in Istanbul on Friday to pave the way for an end to the months-long Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
Unless derailed at the last minute, the deal will allow an estimated 22mn tonnes of wheat, corn and other crops to be collected by cargo ships from the Ukrainian coast and transported across the world, averting fears of a global food crisis.
The signing will be attended by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, and UN secretary-general António Guterres, who played key roles in negotiating the deal.
İbrahim Kalın, a spokesman and adviser to Erdoğan, said the signing would be “critical for global grain security”.
The final text was agreed after Erdoğan met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Tehran earlier this week.
Although Russia has agreed not to attack cargo ships or Ukrainian ports as part of the deal, according to two people familiar with the text, Kyiv is still highly doubtful of Russia’s motives and the viability of its security guarantees.
“Everyone is conscious that something could go wrong,” a Ukrainian official close to the talks said.
A senior western diplomat also said that a memorandum of understanding had to be signed between the UN and Russia on facilitating exports of food, fertilisers and the raw materials used in producing fertilisers.
Ukraine, the world’s fifth-largest wheat exporter and a vital supplier of the staple to countries across the Middle East and Africa, has also felt a sense of growing urgency to strike a deal in order to release grain silos since this year’s harvest has already begun.
Under the deal, cargo ships travelling to and from Ukrainian ports will be inspected at monitoring sites in Turkey in order to allay Moscow’s concerns that the vessels could be used to smuggle weapons, according to two people briefed on the details.
A third, non-Nato country, whose identity is not specified in the agreement, may provide minesweeping duties if needed to clear a safe path for cargo ships.
Speaking on his way back from his visit to Tehran on Tuesday, Erdoğan told journalists that he hoped that the plan could start being implemented “in the coming days”. But some western officials have cautioned that it could take longer before shipments resume.
A spokesperson for Ukraine’s foreign ministry said: “Let’s wait and see.”