Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is due to hold talks Wednesday with Turkish officials on a plan that could allow Ukraine to export its grain through the Black Sea to global markets amid an escalating food crisis.
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.
An estimated 22 million tons of grains are sitting in silos in Ukraine.
Turkey is involved in efforts for the establishment of a UN-led mechanism that would create a secure corridor for the shipment of the Ukrainian grain – and for Russia to export food and fertilizer. Turkey would facilitate and protect the transport of the grain in the Black Sea, Turkish officials have said.
A top Russian official said Tuesday that Ukraine needs to remove sea mines near its Black Sea port of Odesa to allow grain exports to resume.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said 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.
Turkish 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.
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.
Lavrov’s discussions in the Turkish capital are also expected to focus on Turkey’s plans to launch a new cross-border offensive in northern Syria against Syrian Kurdish militia that Ankara considers to be a security threat. Turkey needs Moscow’s approval to continue its presence in northern Syria, despite the two supporting opposite sides in Syria’s civil war. In 2020, 37 Turkish soldiers were killed in Russia-backed airstrikes against rebels in Syria’s last rebel-held Idlib province.
“Turkey really needs Russia’s blessing in order to be able to carry on this operation [in Syria.] And so I think they’re really going to try to get that kind of a concession out of the Russian side,” said Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey program coordinator at Project on Middle East Democracy.
Lavrov’s meeting also comes as Turkey – a NATO member – has voiced opposition to Sweden and Finland’s bids to join the alliance. Moscow has also objected to the Nordic countries’ candidacy – which analyst say may play a role in discussions concerning Syria.
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.