A deal on the resumption of Ukrainian grain exports blocked by Russia is being discussed in Istanbul between Ukrainian and Russian officials, as both sides attempt to end a standoff that has exposed millions to the risk of starvation.
Turkish Defence Minister Huluso Akar said a military delegation from Ukraine, Russia and Turkey met UN officials to discuss the resumption of exports of Ukrainian grain from the Black Sea port of Odesa.
Kyiv believed a deal was just “two steps away”, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was quoted as saying before the talks began.
More than 20 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain are stuck in silos in Odesa and dozens of ships have been stranded due to Russia's blockade, part of what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine, but which Kyiv and the West say is an unjustified war of aggression.
Mr Kuleba told Spanish newspaper El País that a deal to restore exports was close.
“We are two steps away from a deal with Russia. We are in the final phase and now everything depends on Russia,” it quoted him as saying. Other participants in the negotiations were more cautious, saying much remained to be agreed.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday played down expectations of an imminent breakthrough.
“We are working hard indeed, but there is still a way to go,” Mr Guterres told reporters.
Turkey has good relations with both countries and has been trying to broker a deal to safely deliver the grains.
Ankara has said it has 20 merchant ships waiting in the region that could be quickly loaded and sent to world markets.
A plan by the UN proposes the ships follow safe “corridors” that run between the known location of mines.
Ukraine has also asked that its vessels be accompanied by warships from a friendly country such as Turkey.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Turkish ambassador last week after Turkish authorities briefly detained a Russian ship suspected of transporting stolen grain but allowed it to leave and return to a Russian port. A Turkish official said authorities were not able to determine that the ship carried stolen grain.
Global wheat suppliers
Ukraine and Russia are major global wheat suppliers. Russia is also a large fertiliser exporter and Ukraine a significant producer of corn and sunflower oil, so clinching a deal to unblock exports is seen as vital for food security, notably among developing nations, and for stabilising markets.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has trapped about 22 million tonnes of grain inside Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said.
Russia has been accused of exacerbating the global food crisis by complicating attempts to supply poorer nations with grain and fuelling inflation.