Mission Impossible? Officials Wrangle to Free Ukraine’s Grains

BRUSSELS — Russian and Ukrainian negotiators are scheduled to meet Wednesday in Istanbul, in the increasingly desperate effort to release huge amounts of grain from Ukraine’s ports and ship it to a world facing rising hunger.

Officials have tried for months to break the impasse without triggering an escalation in the war or, worse, a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO. Wednesday’s meeting raises hopes for a breakthrough, but in interviews, more than half a dozen officials directly involved or briefed on the plans cited obstacles ranging from the mundane to the downright “Mission Impossible.”

Proposed alternatives, moving the grain overland or through the Danube River, have been too slow, cumbersome and small-scale to address the challenge of more than 22 million tons of grain stuck in Odesa and other Black Sea ports that are blockaded by Russian warships.

“After all those talks, military delegations of the defense ministries of Turkey, Russian Federation and Ukraine and the U.N. delegation will meet tomorrow in Istanbul about safe transportation of the grain waiting in Ukraine’s ports via sea to the international market,” the Turkish defense minister, Hulusi Akar, who will host the session, said in a statement on Tuesday.

The urgency is real. Failing to move the grain already at the ports and in silos in the coming weeks will begin to hamper the summer harvest, as farmers will have no place to store their fresh crop.

The war in Ukraine is already contributing to a global food crisis that has sent the price of vital commodities like wheat and barley to historic highs.

The most immediate and consequential fallout is looming famine in the Horn of Africa, where years of rain failures are already devastating communities in Somalia and parts of neighboring countries. Ukraine, the world’s fourth-largest exporter of grains, is a key source for that region.

The international diplomatic efforts are being hampered by problems that include circumnavigating mines in the Black Sea, arranging at-sea inspections of the cargo, and, crucially, convincing the Kremlin it has an interest in playing ball.

Dozens of officials, experts and diplomats are involved in talks and plans, officials interviewed said.

The European Union is worried the U.N. and Turkish efforts won’t bear fruit immediately, and has been trying to make marginal improvements in half a dozen small-scale land and river routes out of Ukraine and into friendly neighboring countries, officials said.

It has deployed more than 100 officials to help efforts in Romania, Poland, Moldova and Lithuania to transport grains by rail, truck and river barge to the ports of Constanta in Romania, Gdansk in Poland and Klaipeda in Lithuania.

Those efforts have been bedeviled by logistical issues, including the different railway gauges used in Ukraine and E.U. countries, expired locomotive licenses and dredging needed for the Danube River.

Critics of the approach say it is extremely laborious and ultimately a drop in the bucket. European Union officials concede that, at best, those efforts can move just 5 million tons per month.

The U.N.-Turkey plan under negotiation would require a tremendous level of trust between Ukraine and Russia — a scarce commodity itself — as well as impeccable execution on a grand scale.

At the Group of 7 industrialized nations meeting in Germany late last month, António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, told leaders he was optimistic that a breakthrough was in the offing in a week to ten days, according to several officials briefed on the talks, or who had listened in. That was more than two weeks ago.

According to three senior government officials, Mr. Guterres said the United Nations had secured a solution to a key obstacle to opening sea lanes for vessels carrying the grain out of Odesa: Ukraine has mined its own ports to deter Russian invasion.

The Ukrainian government had asked for security assurances, that the Russians would not attack if some mines were removed. They sought long-range missiles to strike Russian submarines miles offshore, and NATO-member escorts for grain ships.

Instead, Mr. Guterres told G-7 leaders that the Ukrainians, who have mapped the mines, agreed to remove only a few of them and have their own Navy or Coast Guard captains steer the freighters out to international waters, officials said. Then foreign crews would take over and take the ships to Istanbul, before continuing on to other destinations.

A key sticking point so far has been the issue of inspecting the vessels and cargo: the Russian side has demanded that it alone carry out inspections to make sure that the vessels are carrying only grain, and that on return, they are empty, and not taking any weapons back to Ukraine. One diplomat from a U.N. Security Council country said that a compromise was being worked out with Turkish officials carrying out the checks.

The diplomat, who spoke to reporters on background, said that the proposed agreement includes a Russian guarantee not to fire on the ships. But that promise would apply only to the transportation of grain, and would likely be time-limited, the diplomat said, adding that an agreement could be reached by the end of the week.

The U.N. and Turkey-led negotiations also include a promise to help Russia, another major food exporter, ship its fertilizer and grain. To do so, the European Union might need to remove its sanctions on Russian fertilizer — which it has not indicated it plans to do.

Russian grain is not sanctioned, but Russia says its insurance and shipping costs have skyrocketed since its invasion of Ukraine and the designation of the Black Sea as a war zone.

“The problem is that those countries have imposed sanctions against some of our seaports, created difficulties with cargo insurance and freighting,” Mr. Putin said on June 30 during a meeting with the president of Indonesia in the Kremlin.

“All these matters are being discussed with the direct involvement of U.N. Secretary-General Guterres,” he added, according to a transcript posted on the Kremlin website. “Top Russian Government officials and I are in constant working contact with our colleagues at the U.N.”

But Western officials have put the blame squarely on Russia, not least because its troops have destroyed or plundered grain stocks in Ukraine and even tried to sell them overseas. The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has said Mr. Putin is weaponizing hunger in the developing world.

At the Group of 20 meeting last week in Bali, Indonesia, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said, “Again and again, we heard calls from across the world. represented in that room for Russia to open the Black Sea for Ukrainian grain shipments.” The United States supports the Turkish-U.N. effort to broker a compromise, he added, “and we need Russia to fully cooperate with it.”

The U.N. said it could not comment on the details of the talks because of sensitive nature and the potential for them to fall apart at the last minute, but an update to the talks could come as early as Wednesday, according to spokesman Farhan Haq.

“Our discussions are continuing and we are hopeful that they will bear fruit, but we cannot comment on what stage we are at just yet,” Mr. Haq said.

Reporting was contributed by Farnaz Fassihi in New York; Valerie Hopkins in Tivat, Montenegro; Michael Crowley in Bali, Indonesia; and Safak Timur in Istanbul.


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