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German farm chief: Trusting Putin to free Black Sea is like believing in Santa Claus

Officials in Kyiv and Brussels are skeptical that efforts to free millions of tons of Ukrainian grain being blockaded by Russia will succeed, even as the U.N., which is sponsoring the deal, touts progress.

Germany’s Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir on Monday said believing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assurances is akin to believing in “Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.”

“I don’t think that much will come of it because [it] is based on Putin’s word [which is] not worth the paper it’s written on,” Özdemir said in Brussels as he arrived for a meeting of the EU’s agricultural ministers.

“If you still believe in Putin’s word, you might as well believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. That’s about as serious and just as fact-based,” he said.

Özdemir’s skepticism comes despite negotiators from Turkey and the U.N. announcing a “basic, technical deal” between the warring sides in Istanbul last week, which would allow millions of tons of grain currently stuck in Ukraine to be exported via the Black Sea to import-dependent countries. Dozens of hungry nations around the world that are already struggling economically rely heavily on grain imports from Ukraine.

Talks could inch forward this week with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres raising hopes of a final deal as Putin is due to meet his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Iran on Tuesday.

The four sides will meet again to sign a written deal in Istanbul next week, according to a person with knowledge of Turkey’s role in the negotiations. “We have to have a deal this time,” the person said. A U.N. spokesperson said the next round of talks has not been announced yet but added that Guterres was ready to attend “if needed.”

For now, even though Ukraine publicly appreciated Turkey’s efforts, its officials are also adopting a skepticism-heavy wait-and-see approach.

“I’m still quite reserved about the expectations,” Olga Trofimtseva, ambassador-at-large at the foreign affairs ministry in Kyiv, told POLITICO.

“Why I’m not so optimistic about the outcome is because of two main factors: I don’t trust Russia at all … and there are some difficult technical issues,” she said, alluding to questions about how to de-mine Ukraine’s ports, deciding who conducts checks on the grain ships and how a mooted coordination center to be established in Istanbul would work in practice.

The biggest issue, Trofimtseva said, is the “firm security guarantees” Russia can provide regarding the safety of Ukraine’s ports and ships. “There are many, many open issues at least for now,” she said.

Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the port of Odesa “has to be secured so that Russians would not attack it again.”

‘An issue of life and death’

Özdemir also called on the EU Commission to take a more active role in scaling up Ukraine’s exports by road and rail across its EU borders — even though there’s a broad consensus that land routes cannot shift the same quantities of grain as Black Sea ships.

“Neighboring countries and individual member states cannot do this on their own. It needs the leadership of the Commission,” he said, calling for Brussels to mastermind the creation of a “permanent alternative route” for Ukraine’s grain exports.

Addressing reporters earlier in the day, the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell acknowledged that land-based export routes are “not enough.”

He continued: “So I hope, and I think I have hope, that this week it will be possible to reach an agreement to de-block Odesa and other Ukrainian ports.”

“The lives of tens of thousands of people depend on this agreement. So, it is not a diplomatic game, it is an issue of life and death for many human beings.”

Leonie Kijewski and Camille Gijs contributed reporting.

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