Turkey holds out hope for Black Sea grain exports as Ukraine's allies scramble for access

Ankara says it is trying to negotiate with Moscow to help ease food crisis caused by Ukraine war

Turkey controls access to the Black Sea via the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles and is seeking to broker an agreement. Reuters
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Turkey said on Tuesday it was hopeful of brokering a deal to resume grain exports via the Black Sea that would not involve western warships patrolling the sensitive waters.

A senior aide to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said there was a “dire need” to unblock Ukrainian ports after the war with Russia brought millions of tonnes of badly needed grain exports to a standstill.

Although workarounds such as rail wagons and river barges have salvaged some of the stranded grain, Ukraine and others say there is no realistic way of shifting the bulk of the food without reopening the Black Sea.

However, Ukraine does not believe Russia’s assurances that its navy would not move in if the coast is partially opened — raising the possibility of another naval power such as Turkey keeping the peace.

Turkey, which is a Nato member and has criticised the invasion of Ukraine but sought to avoid burning bridges with Moscow, is playing the role of mediator in UN-led talks on a solution.

The adviser, Ilnur Cevik, said Russian diplomats were engaging in the negotiations with the UN and Turkey, which controls access to the Black Sea via the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles.

“We hope that sooner or later there will be an agreement with the Russians to get the Ukrainian grain out of the country and through the straits and into the world market,” Mr Cevik told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Ukrainian farmers say they may have to discard unused grain stocks if they are not exported soon. EPA

Asked whether British or American warships could protect a Ukrainian shipping convoy, as grain exporters have suggested, Mr Cevik said Turkey did not need help from its western partners.

“Turkey has the second-largest military force in Nato, so Turkey can more than handle this situation,” he said. “At the moment I don’t think there’s a need for Nato ships and to further antagonise the Russians.

“There’s a dire need for grain and it will help the world market, so Turkey is trying to do its share to help ease this pain.”

Western powers have sent increasingly high-grade weapons to Ukraine during the conflict but have been keen to avoid any direct confrontation with Russia that could implicate Nato’s mutual defence guarantee.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday said Britain was not looking to send larger forces to the Black Sea, which could fall foul of the 1936 Montreux Convention governing use of the straits.

“There are alternative solutions that do not involve the presence of UK or other warships in the Black Sea, although they might involve a tougher approach,” Mr Johnson said, without elaborating.

He said Turkey was “absolutely indispensable to solving this” and that Britain was offering insurance and demining equipment to help cargo ships move the grain out if the Black Sea opens.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to maintain cordial relations with Russia's Vladimir Putin. AP

However, he told MPs that global powers will “increasingly have to look at alternative means of moving that grain from Ukraine” if the straits do not reopen.

There are concerns that time is running out to get hold of Ukraine's grain stocks because the next harvest is coming and farmers will have to throw away food if they have nowhere to store it. An additional complication is that surrounding countries are beginning their own harvests and silos will fill up even without Ukraine's exports.

Railcars to the West

Some of the stranded grain stocks have been loaded on rail wagons to Poland, although that route faces the problem that Ukraine’s Soviet railways are the wrong size for Polish trains and a change of wheels is needed at the border.

Poland and the European Union sought to speed up the process by waiving some border checks on goods entering the bloc’s single market and sending more inspectors to carry them out 24/7.

Belarus, which has the same kind of railways as Ukraine, has offered to handle the grain but its status as a Kremlin ally under western sanctions means that route is unacceptable to the EU.

Barges to the south

River barges down the Danube to Romania are another option, although their capacity is much smaller than that of Black Sea cargo ships.

Ukraine accuses Russia of worsening the situation by pilfering grain. Turkey impounded a Russian-flagged ship heading on Sunday to investigate a Ukrainian claim that the vessel was carrying stolen goods.

Updated: July 05, 2022, 12:24 PM