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Ukraine, Russia grain talks in Turkey stir optimism as UN voices caution

Turkey’s defense chief has announced Russia and Ukraine are set to sign an understanding over a series of “fundamental technical” issues that the warring parties agreed on during today’s talk in Istanbul.
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The first signs of progress have emerged in the grain crisis as Turkey’s defense chief announced that Ukraine and Russia have agreed in principle on some technical issues for the safe export of Ukrainian grain, raising hopes of a breakthrough amid a looming global food crisis.

After a four-way meeting between Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish military delegations as well as UN officials in Istanbul today, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that Kyiv and Moscow “agreed on principal” over a series of “fundamental technical” issues including establishment of a coordination center in Istanbul; joint security checks at entering and exiting points of ships; and ensuring navigational safety on shipping routes.

“We see that the parties are willing to resolve this conflict. We will try to strike a solution with coordination of the UN,” he said, adding that the parties would sign an "understanding" on a range of agreed issues during the second round of talks to be held in Istanbul next week.

Akar described the talks which lasted some one and a half hours, as “positive and constructive,” adding that today's reconciliation marks “a significant step” towards ending the crisis. Yet he stopped short of providing details on major stumbling blocks, including a Ukrainian demand for third-party security guarantees. 

Any agreement must ensure Russia “will respect these corridors, they will not sneak into the harbor and attack ports or that they will not attack ports from the air with their missiles,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the Associated Press today, a few hours before the talks. Ukraine is pressing for a third-party government as a "guarantor state" in exchange for de-mining its ports, saying removing mines without such a guarantee could pave the way for Russian assaults on its shores.

Because of the Russian invasion, tens of millions of tons of grain are waiting for export at Ukrainian silos and ships. More than 35 countries across the world were importing more than 50% of their grain from Ukraine, according to the UN World Food Program (WFP). 

“Failure to open the ports in the Odessa region is a declaration of war on global food security, and will result in famines, destabilization and mass migration around the world,” WFP Executive Director David Beasley warned in May.

The WFP was also one of the leading buyers of the Ukrainian grain as part of its food-assistance program for impoverished communities across the world, particularly in Africa.

The UN hailed the outcome of today’s talks, with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres describing it as a “critical step forward.”

“A ray of hope in a world darkened by crises. Today in Istanbul, we have seen a major step forward to ensure the export of Ukrainian food products through the Black Sea,” he later wrote on Twitter. “I salute the commitment of all those working to secure an agreement for our common humanity.”

The UN chief also thanked Turkey, which is rising its profile once again after the Ukrainian-Russian peace talks the country hosted in March broke up without any progress. Ankara has been conducting shuttle diplomacy between Kyiv and Moscow as part of the UN-led efforts to solve the grain crisis. Today's meeting was followed by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's phone conversations with his Ukrainian and Russian counterparts on July 11.

A breakthrough in the crisis could defuse tensions between Kyiv and Ankara amid growing Ukrainian discontent and international criticism over Turkey’s perceived leniency toward Russia. Ukraine charges Russia is looting Ukrainian grain, selling it to third countries via Turkish ports. 

Resolution of the crisis would also strengthen Ankara’s international standing, providing ammunition to Erdogan who is gearing up for one of the toughest elections he has faced amid a crippling economic crisis. 

In addition to the talks in Istanbul next week, Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin are expected to discuss the issue during their face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the Astana summit on July 19 in Tehran. 

Meanwhile, despite today’s progress, observers still sound caution. Guterres echoed a similar sentiment, stressing that no formal agreement has yet been signed. “We still need a lot of goodwill and commitment by all parties. They’ve shown it and I’m encouraged, I’m optimistic. But it’s not yet fully done,” he said.

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