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Putin and Zelenskyy edge closer to Black Sea shipping truce

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The leaders of Russia and Ukraine held separate talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Monday on plans to reopen safe routes for shipping grain via the Black Sea.

Erdoğan’s phone calls with Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy will boost hopes that he is making progress toward brokering an agreement that would allow shipments of grain from Ukrainian ports to resume.

“President Erdogan noted that it was time for the United Nations to take action for the plan regarding the formation of secure corridors via the Black Sea for the grain export,” a Turkish readout from his call with Russia’s president says.

Russia has been blockading Ukraine’s ports since Putin decided to invade in late February. Ukraine, which was once known as the breadbasket of Europe, is a major agricultural exporter and much of its grain is traditionally sent to import-dependent countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. Now, millions of tons of Ukrainian grain are stuck in storage facilities.

The U.N. and Turkey are trying to mediate discussions to restart Ukraine’s crucial grain exports. But tensions are running high over allegations of stolen supplies, which Moscow denies: Ukraine’s foreign affairs ministry estimates Russian forces have grabbed at least 400,000 tons of grain from the country since the February invasion.

In its readout of the conversation, the Kremlin said the call took place “on the eve of the upcoming Russian-Turkish summit meeting in the near future,” indicating that Putin is ready for face-to-face talks with Erdoğan. The statement added that “an exchange of views on the situation around Ukraine continued, including in the context of coordinating efforts to ensure the safety of navigation in the Black Sea and grain exports to world markets.”

Erdoğan also spoke with Zelenskyy about the safe corridors at sea, saying that Turkey “continues to work on the UN plan aimed at making sure Ukraine’s grains reach world markets.”

Zelenskyy tweeted after the conversation that the two leaders “discussed the importance of unblocking [Ukrainian] ports and resuming grain exports.” He added that the two sides should “prevent Russia from taking our grain from [the temporarily occupied territories].”

This hints at Kyiv’s worries about Moscow establishing new trade routes out of occupied Ukrainian ports like Berdyansk and exporting the grain Ukraine says was stolen to places like Turkey.

However, the fact that both Putin and Zelenskyy engaged in public with the Turkish leader on this issue on the same day is likely to raise hopes that progress toward an agreement is possible.

Eddy Wax contributed reporting.

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