Ukraine is open to demining its ports to allow the exit of the blocked cereal if Russia withdraws the ships | International

Ukraine is willing to demine at least one of its ports on the Black Sea to establish a naval corridor that will allow it to export its agricultural production, especially cereals, whose blockade due to the Russian invasion threatens to create a food crisis. But it will only do so if Russia withdraws its ships from the designated corridor and an international mission with firepower is deployed to monitor that the Russian fleet fulfills its part of the deal, explained Ukrainian diplomatic sources in statements to EL PAÍS.

Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, barley, corn and sunflowers, but the naval blockade imposed by Russia on its ports – where, before the war, 95% of its exports left – has made it almost impossible for kyiv fulfill your commitments. This has left the countries most dependent on Ukrainian agricultural production in a very delicate situation, such as Lebanon (it imports almost 75% of the wheat it consumes from Ukraine), Libya (40%), Tunisia (25%), Indonesia (28%) and Bangladesh (20%).

At the end of April, the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, visited Ukraine and conveyed to the Government of kyiv the need to find a solution to the Ukrainian grain blockade. Since then, the UN has tried to bring the positions between Russia and Ukraine closer, without success, for which it required the help of Turkey to mediate between the two countries. Last week, a Russian delegation, which included military personnel and technicians, traveled to Ankara to discuss the issue. Then, the head of Russian diplomacy, Sergey Lavrov, assured that his country will not put obstacles in the way of the plan proposed by Turkey to remove the grain from Ukraine as long as kyiv agrees to remove the mines from its ports.

In general terms, the plan is to secure a naval corridor to one of the Ukrainian ports (probably Odessa), where the ships would be protected by ships from a non-belligerent country (Turkey has offered to do so). However, the devil is in the details, and in the obvious mistrust between the parties: Moscow demands to be able to inspect the freighters before they access the Ukrainian coast to check if they carry weapons, although the Ukrainians believe that it can use it to carry out sabotage maneuvers.

kyiv also requires solid guarantees that the Russian fleet will not take advantage of a possible demining of its ports to launch an amphibious assault. Lavrov assured last week that Vladimir Putin has promised not to attack Ukrainian ports that are demined, but, given the background, no one in Ukraine trusts the words of the Russian president. “Ukraine would agree to demine its ports if Russia lifts the naval blockade and withdraws its fleet from the agreed area,” a Ukrainian diplomatic source told this newspaper. To ensure that Russian ships do not return to that area once the naval corridor is opened, kyiv requires the deployment of an international naval mission with the power to use force in case the Russian fleet contravenes the pact. This mission could act under the umbrella of the UN or NATO, both options are acceptable in Ukraine’s eyes.

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Unofficial channels

The talks between the two parties and through Turkish mediation continue through unofficial channels, without having produced results so far, despite the fact that time and the leaders of the most affected countries are pressing. Last Thursday, the Senegalese president and current president of the African Union, Macky Sall, called for Ukraine to proceed as soon as possible to remove the mines from the port of Odessa or, otherwise, Africa “will find itself in a situation of famine that can destabilize the continent. At the beginning of the month, Sall also traveled to Russia to demand that Putin unblock the Ukrainian grain situation.

Because, once an agreement is reached, demining would take months, as several experts have explained. “Sea mines have been laid at the approaches to ports and exits from some ports are blocked by sunken barges and cranes,” said a spokesman for the UN-linked International Maritime Organization. It is not only about the mines placed by the Ukrainians in their ports to prevent a Russian landing – for which the Ukrainian military authorities have maps – but also those that, according to kyiv, have been placed by the Russian military around the the Crimean Peninsula and the Snake Island, opposite the mouth of the Danube and through which a possible corridor to the port of Odessa should pass. The Ukrainians are not sure that Moscow will provide them with plans on the disposal of these mines.

kyiv estimates that some 22 million tons of grain have been held up in Ukraine’s silos and ports since the start of the Russian invasion, hampering the logistics of the harvest that is about to begin. At the moment, attempts are being made to move agricultural production by rail and through ports in Romania reached by land and small boats, although transport capacity is much lower and access more expensive. There are also more than 80 international cargo ships stranded in Ukrainian ports, many of them loaded with grain and most of which have been abandoned by their crews. Several merchant ships have been hit by shells in the Black Sea since the start of the war, so navigation insurance in the area has been triggered, further increasing the cost of transporting grain.

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