Russian and Ukrainian officials were poised Friday to sign deals designed to clear millions of tons of desperately needed grain for export, ending a standoff brought on by the war in Ukraine that threatened food security around the globe.
The two countries were expected to sign separate agreements with Turkey and the United Nations that would enable Ukraine to export 22 million tons of grain and other agricultural products that have been stuck in Black Sea ports due to the war.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan planned to take part in a signing ceremony in Istanbul. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Ukraine's infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, were designated as their governments' signatories.
Ukrainian and Russian military delegations reached a tentative agreement last week on a U.N. plan that would also allow Russia to export its grain and fertilizers. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine's president, stressed Friday that Ukraine and Russia would sign separate agreements.
"Ukraine does not sign any documents with Russia," Podolyak wrote on Twitter, adding that his country would sign an agreement with Turkey and the U.N., with Russia signing a separate "mirror agreement.”
Ukraine is one of the world's largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but Russia's invasion of the country and naval blockade of its ports have halted shipments. Some grain is being transported through Europe by rail, road and river, but the prices of vital commodities like wheat and barley have soared during the nearly five-month war.
The deal makes provisions for the safe passage of ships. It foresees the establishment of a control center in Istanbul, to be staffed by U.N., Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian officials, to run and coordinate the process, Turkish officials have said. Ships would undergo inspections to ensure they are not carrying weapons.
Podolyak insisted that no Russian ship would escort vessels and that there would be no Russian representative present at Ukrainian ports. Ukraine also plans an immediate military response "in case of provocations," he said.
Guterres first raised the critical need to get Ukraine's agricultural production and Russia's grain and fertilizer back into world markets in late April during meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
He proposed a package deal in early June amid fears that the war was endangering food supplies for many developing nations and could worsen hunger for up to 181 million people.
Russian and Ukrainian officials have blamed each other for the blocked grain shipments. Moscow accused Ukraine of failing to remove sea mines at the ports to allow safe shipping and insisted on its right to check incoming ships for weapons. Ukraine has argued that Russia's port blockade and launching of missiles from the Black Sea made any shipments unviable.
Ukraine has sought international guarantees that the Kremlin wouldn't use the safe corridors to attack the Black Sea port of Odesa. Ukrainian authorities have also accused Russia of stealing grain from eastern Ukraine and deliberately shelling Ukrainian fields to set them on fire.
On Thursday evening, a spokesperson for Ukraine's Foreign Ministry appeared to lay out Kyiv's conditions for backing the plan.
Ukraine's delegation "will support only those decisions that will guarantee the security of the southern regions of Ukraine, the strong position of the armed forces of Ukraine in the Black Sea and the safe export of Ukrainian agricultural products to world markets," the spokesperson, Oleh Nikolenko, told reporters.
In Washington, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the U.S. welcomes the agreement in principle. "But what we're focusing on now is holding Russia accountable for implementing this agreement and for enabling Ukrainian grain to get to world markets. It has been for far too long that Russia has enacted this blockade," Price said.
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