Kyiv casts doubt on Russia-Turkey Black Sea grain deal

Britain joins US in sending powerful multi-launch rocket systems to Ukrainian forces

Kyiv has cast doubt on the viability of a tentative deal reportedly reached between Russia and Turkey to allow millions of tonnes of grain to be exported from Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea that are being blockaded and bombed by Moscow’s military.

Ukraine says more than 20 million tonnes of grain are trapped in the country due to Russia’s invasion, fuelling fears for a food crisis in parts of Africa and Asia and raising concerns over where Ukraine will store its next harvest.

Russia’s pro-Kremlin Izvestia newspaper said a deal was taking shape under which Turkey would help demine Ukrainian waters and escort grain-carrying ships from Ukraine’s ports to neutral waters, where Moscow’s navy would then oversee their passage to the Bosporus.

Turkish media reported last week a “roadmap” for grain exports from Ukraine port would be discussed this week by representatives of Turkey, Ukraine, Russia and the United Nations, with Istanbul potentially hosting a “command centre” for the maritime operation.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to discuss the issue during a visit to Turkey on Wednesday, but it is not clear how closely the plan is being co-ordinated with Kyiv.

“By commenting in advance on reaching the deal, Russia is seeking to shift responsibility to Ukraine” for disrupting supplies, Kyiv’s deputy economy minister Taras Kachka told Bloomberg, which also reported on the nascent Russo-Turkish deal on Monday.

“But the fact remains that the food crisis has been artificially created by Russia and Russia alone,” he added.

Kyiv’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said no one should believe any pledge from Russian president Vladimir Putin not to use the removal of sea mines to storm Ukrainian ports such as Odesa.

“Putin says he will not use trade routes to attack Odesa. This is the same Putin who told German chancellor [Olaf] Scholz and French president [Emmanuel] Macron he would not attack Ukraine – days before launching a full-scale invasion of our country. We cannot trust Putin, his words are empty,” he wrote on Twitter.

After talking to British prime minister Boris Johnson on Monday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said they discussed “ways to avoid the food crisis and unblock ports”, and London’s pledge to send powerful multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) to Kyiv.

The British government said the M270 system could strike targets with great accuracy at a range of 80km, a similar capability to the so-called Himars MLRS that Washington has promised to send to Kyiv.

“As Russia’s tactics change, so must our support to Ukraine. These highly capable multiple-launch rocket systems will enable our Ukrainian friends to better protect themselves against the brutal use of long-range artillery, which Putin’s forces have used indiscriminately to flatten cities,” said UK defence secretary Ben Wallace.

Mr Putin has said such systems – only a handful of which are scheduled for delivery to Ukraine – will “in essence change nothing” on the battlefield, while also warning that Russia would strike new targets if Kyiv received longer-range weapons from its allies.

Russian forces have pushed back Ukraine’s military on the plains of the Donbas region in recent weeks, thanks to the superior range and quantity of their artillery pieces.

“The longer the range of the weapons that you deliver, the further we will push back from our territory that line from which the neo-Nazis could threaten the Russian Federation,” Mr Lavrov added. Moscow claims to be “denazifying” Ukraine, which is a pro-western democracy.

Mr Lavrov was forced to cancel a planned trip to Serbia on Monday after surrounding countries said they would not allow him to fly through their airspace to Belgrade, where the government tries to maintain close ties with the West and Moscow.

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe