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Ukraine plays down hope of deal to end Russian grain blockade

A deal to end Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian seaports and grain exports remains a long way off as Moscow uses talks to push through its war goals and ambition to dominate the Black Sea, Kiev’s top negotiator said.

Turkey and the UN try estate agent an end to the Russian naval blockade in the Black Sea, which has paralyzed the export of Ukrainian raw materials and sparked fears of global food shortages.

But Taras Kachka, Ukraine’s deputy economics minister and chief negotiator, said Russia’s efforts to conquer the south of the country were standing in the way of a deal and that rumors of a breakthrough were “more optimistic than reality”.

“If there are conversations, we participate. But that doesn’t mean we agree with every option on the table,” Kachka said. “Any attempt to base a food security solution on the goodwill or grace of Russia will not work or will not be trusted.”

Kachka’s comments came days after G7 leaders begged Vladimir Putin to lift the blockade of the Black Sea ahead of Ukraine’s impending summer harvest, fearing that the country’s grain storage capacity could quickly run out if space is not cleared. Ukraine accounts for about 13 percent of global grain exports.

Taras Kachka, Ukraine's deputy minister of economy, pictured in Geneva this month

Taras Kachka, Ukraine’s deputy minister of economy, said: “If there are talks, we will participate. But that doesn’t mean we agree with every option on the table.” © Fabrice Coffrini/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Kachka said the blockade is part of Russia’s plan to dominate the Black Sea and exercise power over global commodity markets, as it had done in Europe using its natural gas exports.

“Grain as a raw material is better than gas because the demand is not flexible. For gas you can simply switch to coal. Everyone needs bread,” he added.

One of Russia’s conditions to end the siege is to inspect ships entering and leaving Ukrainian ports. Kachka compared the idea to piracy.

“What does it mean that Russia has the right to inspect? Is it a veto? [ships]† Or is it just some sort of extra payment to corrupt Russian military officers. † † like Somali pirates?” he said.

Other “technical solutions,” including what he said was a Turkish proposal to coordinate the shipments, failed to resolve the underlying uncertainty caused by the war, Kachka added.

Russian missiles hit Odessa, Ukraine’s largest port, on Monday as part of a wave of airstrikes across the country. Ukraine has also attacked Russian-occupied natural gas platforms in the Black Sea and Snake Island in recent days, which are close to shipping routes.

Russia has said that if Ukraine removes mines placed in its waters after the invasion, it will allow ships from its ports. But Kachka said Ukraine cannot disable its coastal defenses as long as Russia remains able to invade in the south again.

“they try to use” [the talks] as a way to legitimize their military presence there. This is also impossible for us.”

Kachka said Ukraine would accept the naval presence of a third country to escort ships, including “Her Majesty’s fleet or the US or Turkey”. But Western countries are against a direct confrontation with Russia, despite their financial and arms support to Ukraine.

Russian smugglers have already exported grain looted from Ukrainian territory in recent weeks.

Ukraine has ramped up a number of overland goods exports and sails ships through part of the Danube and on to the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanța. But the shipments are only a fraction of the pre-war totals.

“Russia is strangling Ukraine by blocking its ports. There is no substitute for the Black Sea ports in supplying 50 million tons of soft commodities to global markets,” said Andy Hunder, president of the US Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine.

Even if a deal were made to allow escorted ships through waters, commercial shippers would be wary of crossing waters controlled by the Russian military, Hunder added.

“Russian missiles and military ships are too great a risk for commercial ships and insurance companies to bear.”

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