Ukraine, the United Nations and Turkey hailed progress at talks in Istanbul with Russia designed to resume Black Sea grain exports and ease the risk of starvation faced by millions, but an end to the war remained far off as heavy shelling continued.
Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said an agreement would be signed next week. He said Ankara will ensure the safety of shipments in transit and the parties will jointly check grain cargoes in ports. But UN chief Antonio Guterres said more work was needed before a deal was signed.
“We have seen a critical step forward,” Guterres told reporters in New York. “We still need a lot of goodwill and commitments by all parties,” he said.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared optimistic in late-night comments: “The Ukrainian delegation has reported to me that there is progress. In the coming days we will agree on the details with the UN Secretary General.”
Turkey and Ukraine said a joint coordination centre with Russia and the United Nations would be set up.
“Its task will be to carry out general monitoring and coordination of safe navigation in the Black Sea,” Zelenskiy’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak said on Twitter.
Russia did not immediately offer comment.
Apart from being major global wheat suppliers, Russia is also a large fertilizer exporter and Ukraine a significant producer of corn and sunflower oil.
Clinching a deal to unblock exports is seen as vital for food security, notably among developing nations, and for stabilising markets.
But Guterres warned there was still “a long way to go” before there would be peace talks to end the war.
Several Ukrainian cities have reported heavy Russian shelling and, while not linking a grain deal to progress in talks to end the war, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was earlier downbeat on prospects for peace.
Ukrainian officials said there had been sustained Russian shelling across Donetsk province, which Moscow aims to capture to complete its seizure of the industrialised Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Russian state news agency TASS on Wednesday quoted a separatist official, Vitaly Kiselyov, as saying Russian and proxy forces had entered the town of Siversk in Donetsk province and could take it in a couple of days.
In their evening briefing note, Ukraine’s armed forces said Russia had not conducted any new assaults on the frontline that includes Siversk, but that the town had been fired on by artillery.
Russia, which says it does not target civilians, said on Wednesday it had shot down four Ukrainian military jets, an announcement dismissed by the Ukrainian air force as propaganda.
Russia also struck 28 settlements in the Mykolaiv region bordering the Black Sea, killing at least five civilians, according to Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield accounts.
Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine caused Europe’s biggest conflict since World War Two.
Millions have fled and thousands have been killed while cities have been reduced to rubble and fears of a wider conflict in the West have grown.
The Kremlin says it is engaged in a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine.
Both Kyiv and Western nations say that is a pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression.
Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of exacerbating a global food crisis and fuelling inflation by complicating attempts to supply poorer nations with grain.
Moscow has blamed Ukraine, accusing it of refusing to remove mines that it scattered around its coastline to protect itself from Russia’s attack and that represent a threat to shipping.
Russia has also lashed out at the West for imposing sanctions on a range of sectors that make it harder for Russia to fund and insure its own maritime freight services.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Pyotr Ilyichev, head of the international organisations department at Russia’s foreign ministry, as saying Russia wanted to control and inspect grain vessels itself to rule out arms smuggling.
Before the announcement of progress in the talks, diplomats said that the plan under discussion included an idea for Ukrainian vessels to guide grain ships in and out through mined port waters; Russia agreeing to a truce while shipments move; and Turkey – supported by the United Nations – inspecting ships to allay Russian fears of weapons smuggling.
Russian news agency RIA quoted an unnamed diplomatic source as saying Russia’s demands in the grain talks included the removal of “obstacles to exports” created by Western sanctions, citing the areas “of shipping insurance, logistics, transportation services and banking operations”.
A senior UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said most of the sticking points in the talks to resume Ukraine Black Sea exports had been overcome, describing the discussions in Istanbul as a “breakthrough.”