Ukraine remains wary as talks kick off to resume Black Sea trade

Ukrainian, Russian and Turkish military delegations are meeting in Istanbul on Wednesday to try to reach a U.N.-brokered deal for Kyiv to safely resume grain exports from its ports on the Black Sea.

Officially, Ukraine has expressed optimism about the talks, according to Farhan Haq, the U.N.’s deputy spokesman for Secretary-General António Guterres.

“We’re just a couple of steps away from reaching an agreement with Russia,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in an interview with Spain’s El País newspaper published on Wednesday. “We are in the final phase and now everything depends on Russia. If they really want to, grain exports will start soon,” he added.

But many officials still have their doubts about Russia’s real intentions. Since Moscow launched the attack on its neighbor in late February, it has blockaded Ukraine’s ports on the Black Sea, which are vital not just for Ukraine’s economy, but also for many countries that rely heavily on imports. This means that millions of tons of grain are sitting in storage, as food prices rise and a growing number of people go hungry in poorer countries.

To strike a deal, Russia needs to provide guarantees to Ukraine that it won’t hit the ports or grain ships as they start operating again. And some officials are skeptical of that happening.

“I think that Russians will find a pretext for no deal,” one Ukrainian official told POLITICO, but acknowledged that a deal would allow Russia to boost its reputation among countries hungry for grain.

“I only see one potential reason: that they want to show the countries of Africa and Asia that they want to save them from food shortages,” Kuleba said.

So far, the crux of the discussions between the three countries’ militaries has to do with which army — Russian or Turkish — would inspect cargo ships before they sail out of Ukraine’s ports to ensure they are only carrying grain and not importing military equipment into Ukraine when they head back, according to a diplomat cited by the New York Times.

In these talks, Ukraine is wary of becoming vulnerable to attacks if it removes the mines that are protecting its ports, but are also blocking their access to the sea.

“For Ukraine, the issue of security is key,” Andriy Yermak, head of office for Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wrote on Telegram.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, said that “work is underway. It is conducted through the military, and information will be provided from there as needed.”

“We are not commenting on any of the details of this technical meeting,” the U.N.’s spokesperson Haq told POLITICO.

After this round of discussions, “there will be an extended meeting between Ukraine, Turkey, the U.N. and the Russian Federation” Yermak wrote. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to meet with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan next week in Iran.