Russia and Ukraine will sign a deal on Friday to reopen Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to grain exports, Turkey said, a hopeful sign that an international food crisis caused by Russia’s invasion could be eased.
Ukraine and Russia, both among the world’s biggest exporters of food, did not immediately confirm Thursday’s announcement by the office of the Turkish presidency. But in a late night video address Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hinted that his country’s Black Sea ports could soon be unblocked.
The blockade by Russia’s Black Sea fleet has reduced supplies to markets around the world and sent grain prices soaring since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into neighboring Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Full details of the agreement were not immediately released. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was going to Turkey, a U.N. spokesman said. The agreement was due to be signed on Friday at 1330 GMT, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s office said.
Turkish defense minister Hulusi Akar said last week that the deal includes joint controls for checking shipments in harbors. Turkey would also set up a coordination center with Ukraine, Russia and the United Nations for grain exports.
Zelenskiy, whose address mainly focused on Ukrainian forces’ potential to make gains on the battlefield, said: “And tomorrow we also expect news for our state from Turkey – regarding the unblocking of our ports.”
Earlier the Ukrainian foreign ministry said that another U.N.-led round of talks to unblock grain exports would take place in Turkey on Friday.
“In summary, a document may be signed which will bind the sides to (ensure) safe functioning of export routes in the Black Sea,” foreign ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko said.
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.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Washington would focus on holding Moscow accountable for carrying out the agreement. The United Nations and Turkey have been working for two months to broker what Guterres called a “package” deal – to resume Ukraine’s Black Sea grain exports and facilitate Russian grain and fertilizer shipments.
Russia on Thursday said the latest round of European Union sanctions would have “devastating consequences” for security and parts of the global economy.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement that the 27-nation bloc proposed to ease some earlier sanctions in a bid to safeguard global food security and Moscow hoped this would create conditions for the unhindered export of grain and fertilizers.
Zelenskiy met senior commanders on Thursday to discuss weapons supplies and intensifying attacks on Russians.
“(We) agreed that our forces have the strong potential to advance on the battlefield and inflict significant new losses on the occupiers,” Zelenskiy said in his video address.
Ukraine has accused Russia of stepping up missile strikes on cities in recent weeks to terrorize its population. Moscow denies deliberately attacking civilians and says all its targets are military.
Kyiv hopes that Western weapons, especially longer-range missiles such as U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) will allow it to counterattack and recapture territory lost in the invasion.
The main frontlines have been largely frozen since Russian forces seized the last two Ukrainian-held cities in eastern Luhansk province in battles in late June and early July. Russian forces are also focused on neighboring Donetsk province.
Russia aims to fully capture all of Donetsk and Luhansk on behalf of its separatist proxies.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, calling it a “special military operation” to rid Ukraine of fascists, an assertion the Ukrainian government and its Western allies said was a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)