Russia will let grain exports out if Ukraine de-mines the water around its Black Sea ports, says foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but Russia’s invasion and blockade of its ports have halted much of that flow, endangering food supplies to many developing countries.
But many of the ports are heavily mined. Russia claims that Ukraine is responsible for mining the waters of the Black Sea off its southern coast. Ukraine says the opposite.
There are 22 million tonnes of grain sitting in silos waiting to be shipped out of Ukraine.
Lavrov, speaking alongside his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, in Ankara on Tuesday, said Russia is willing to open grain export corridors, but this depends on the Ukrainian side.
“To solve this problem, Ukraine should de-mine their ports, only after that can ships travel in the region,” he said.
Lavrov went on to dismiss the impact of the Ukraine war and naval blockade on global food prices.
“Western countries look at this as a catastrophe,” he said. “But the share of Ukrainian grain in the international market is just one per cent, so the food security crisis isn’t actually stemming from this war, we cannot say this situation will cause a food crisis.”
This is contested. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), Ukraine is the fifth largest exporter of wheat, accounting for seven per cent of global sales in 2019.
World wheat prices soared 20% in March, following the Russian invasion.
This prompted the United Nations (UN) to issue a warning that millions were being pushed to the brink of starvation.
Russia’s top diplomat said a UN proposal to restore Ukrainian grain exports “could be beneficial.” But added it was a “symbolic step”.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, Turkish authorities have deactivated at least three mines that drifted into the Bosphorus from the Black Sea, where they threaten international shipping.
Floating mines have also been detected and defused off the coast of Romania.
The UK Ministry of Defense has previously said it has high confidence that these mines were set adrift by Russian activity in the Black Sea, although it added their origin is “unclear and disputed”.
In March, Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, claimed at least 420 naval mines were drifting in the Black Sea following a storm. It alleged the mines were laid by the Ukrainian side.
“The efforts of my Turkish counterpart are of vital importance, they are doing their best to make sure the vessels and ships can be removed from the ports,” said Lavrov.
He was referring to a Turkish proposal to accompany grain carrying ships crossing the Black Sea.
Most wheat from Ukraine is exported via ships to the Middle East and Africa.
“On our side, there are no obstacles or challenges, the Russian Federation is not creating any obstacles for the passage of ships or vessels, we are not preventing anything,” Lavrov said. “We are opening corridors for grain transportation and working on that with our Turkish friends.
“Zelenskyy has said he’s against the demining process…so the ball is in their court, the problem doesn’t lay with us in that regard,” he added.