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Russia to work with Turkey to 'ensure safety' of ships leaving Ukraine ports

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would create a security corridor to ship Ukrainian grain
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) shake hands after a news conference in Ankara, on 8 June 2022 (AFP)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) shake hands after a news conference in Ankara, on 8 June 2022 (AFP)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that Moscow was ready to work together with Turkey to ensure the safe passage of vessels from Ukraine, as concerns mount over grain stuck in Ukrainian ports.

"We are ready to ensure the safety of ships that leave Ukrainian ports," Lavrov told a joint news conference with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu. 

"We are ready to do this in cooperation with our Turkish colleagues."

Lavrov arrived in Ankara on Tuesday amid stark warnings of global food shortages partly blamed on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, AFP reported.

Talks focused on efforts to open a security corridor to ship Ukrainian grain - cereals and wheat in particular - stuck in the war-torn country's ports due to a Russian blockade. 

'We are ready to ensure the safety of ships that leave Ukrainian ports. We are ready to do this in cooperation with our Turkish colleagues'

- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Cavusoglu called Russian demands for an end to sanctions to help grain onto the world market "legitimate".

"If we need to open up the international market to Ukrainian grain, we see the removal of obstacles standing in the way of Russia's exports as a legitimate demand," he said. 

Sanctions imposed on Moscow's financial system have impeded the export of Russian grain and fertiliser. 

At the request of the United Nations, Turkey has offered its services to escort maritime convoys from Ukrainian ports, despite the presence of mines - some of which have been detected near the Turkish coast.

"We are talking about a mechanism that can be created between the UN, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey," in order to open a safe sea corridor for grain exports, Cavusoglu said. 

He welcomed the UN plan as "reasonable" and "implementable", while offering to host a meeting in Istanbul to discuss the details of the scheme. 

Russia and Ukraine produce 30 percent of the global wheat supply, with many Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Turkey dependent on them.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday: "Right now we have about 20-25 million tonnes blocked. In the autumn that could be 70-75 million tonnes."

Turkish discount

The news came after it was revealed at the weekend that Turkey was seeking a 25 percent discount on Ukrainian grain that would be transferred from the port of Odessa to Istanbul in a joint deal between Ankara, Kyiv and Moscow. 

Vahit Kirisci, the Turkish agriculture minister, told journalists at the weekend that Ukraine had continued to voice its concerns over the demining of the port due to possible Russian naval attacks afterwards. 

“However Ukraine agreed to give a 25 percent discount on the grain to us if the deal goes forwards,” said Kirisci. 

Russia-Ukraine war: Turkey seeks 25 percent discount from Kyiv over grain deal
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Anadolu, the Turkish public news agency, reported that a command centre in Istanbul would be established to oversee the grain operation.

Turkish experts believe Ankara would not be unduly troubled even if the Ukrainian grain deal fell apart. 

Ozkan Taspinar, the head of the national grain council, told Turkish media that a 20m tonne wheat crop yield is expected in Turkey, meeting overall Turkish needs. 

On Friday, during a news conference marking the 100th day since the conflict began, Ukraine's ambassador to Turkey accused Russia of "stealing" Ukrainian grain and sending it abroad.

"Russia is shamelessly stealing Ukrainian grain and getting it out from the invaded Crimea," Vasyl Bodnar told reporters in Ankara.

"These grains are being shipped to foreign countries, including Turkey.

"We have made our appeal for Turkey to help us and, upon the suggestion of the Turkish side, are launching criminal cases regarding those stealing and selling the grains."

The Ukrainian embassy in Ankara later said the vessels involved in the stolen grain shipments were the Nadezhda, Finikia, Sormivskiy, Vera, and Mikhail Nenashev ships. Reuters was not able to independently verify the embassy's claims.

So far, Ankara has maintained a delicate balance between Kyiv and Moscow.