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Turkey has failed to persuade Russia to rejoin the Ukraine grain deal

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) listens to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting at Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi, Monday.
Sergei Guneyev
Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) listens to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting at Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi, Monday.

MOSCOW — In closely watched talks in the southern Russian resort city of Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected efforts by his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to revive a United Nations-backed deal to allow the safe passage of grain from Ukraine — the latest setback in the grain deal since Moscow exited it in July.

In a news conference at the conclusion of the one-day summit on Monday, Putin recycled a litany of complaints about the U.N. deal, arguing the agreement helped Ukraine export its grain but repeatedly failed to live up to promises to ease Russia's agriculture trade.

"As often happens with our Western partners, they cheated us," Putin said.

The Kremlin leader told Erdogan that Russia was open to restarting the grain deal — but only once Western-imposed restrictions on banking and logistics were lifted.

"We're not against the deal. We're ready to rejoin immediately, but only once the promises made to us have been fulfilled," added the Russian leader.

Putin also repeated another familiar Russian trope: that the Ukraine grain deal mostly benefited wealthier countries.

Erdogan appeared to reject that notion — saying the grain deal had indeed benefited poorer countries — and he expressed hope Russia would eventually rejoin the agreement he had helped craft.

"As Turkey, we believe that we will reach a solution that will meet the expectations in a short time," Erdogan said.

Since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, Russia has imposed a de facto blockade on Black Sea shipping, leaving commercial vessels unwilling to enter Ukrainian ports. But in July last year, the U.N. and Turkey brokered an arrangement formally called the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which enabled Ukraine's wheat and other farm goods to head back to world markets.

The U.N. noted the initiative allowed nearly 33 million metric tons (36 million tons) of grain and other commodities to leave three Ukrainian ports safely despite the war.

U.N. officials say they have repeatedly tried to assuage Moscow's concerns — even offering "concrete proposals" ahead of the Erdogan talks.

With the grain deal remaining in limbo, the Turkish leader indicated his country was ready to help Russia move forward with a humanitarian initiative to provide free grain to six African countries — most of them Kremlin allies.

Since exiting the U.N. agreement, Moscow has taken to repeatedly attacking Ukraine's grain facilities in an apparent bid to further gut the country's agricultural economy.

Indeed, Russia launched missile strikes on grain stores in the Odesa region near Ukraine's border with NATO ally Romania, just a day before Erdogan's arrival.

Russia has also threatened to fire on commercial ships attempting to circumvent a Russian blockade — calling them legitimate military targets.

In his statement, Putin accused Ukraine of abusing the grain deal's humanitarian shipping corridor to strike civilian infrastructure — an apparent reference to repeated Ukrainian attacks on a key bridge linking the Russian mainland to Crimea.

Ukraine argues it respected the humanitarian corridor but that the bridge itself remains a legitimate target given its role in supplying Russian forces operating in southern Ukraine.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.