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U.S. skeptical U.N.-Russia talks will free trapped Ukrainian grain

Martin Griffiths, one of the U.N. officials leading the talks, met with Russian officials from the ministries of defense and foreign affairs about Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports during his visit to Moscow, according to a second U.N. official. The U.N. has declined to say whether Griffiths or Rebeca Grynspan, the other U.N. official leading the talks, have broached Russia’s calls for sanctions relief during their discussions. U.S. officials are not in the room during the talks, but a State Department and a U.N. official separately confirmed a U.N. delegation recently briefed U.S. officials on the discussions.

“The bottom line is that, apart from leveraging overland routes, we need to get the ports back up and running so we can boost food supplies for those most in need,” said a State Department spokesperson.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield has expressed general U.S. support for the early discussions, but has also noted that there are no sanctions keeping Russia from exporting its own food and agricultural products like fertilizer, as Putin has suggested. State Department aides appear more hopeful about the negotiations than others in the Biden administration, but most officials said they’re waiting for the talks to progress further to see whether Russia drops its calls for sanction relief.

“It’s hard to view the Russian offers in good faith considering how they are actively and intentionally destroying food products in Ukraine and exacerbating global food insecurity,” a U.S. official said, referencing Russian forces’ continued targeting of Ukrainian agriculture facilities and fields.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have bristled at the Russian calls for sanctions relief as well. Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview that Moscow’s demand for sanctions relief in exchange for lifting their Black Sea blockade amounts to “blackmail.”

“Putin is waging war on other innocent people across the world by holding Ukrainian food and related exports hostage,” Risch said.

U.S. lawmakers have, however, have been pushing for the Biden administration to help Ukraine reopen its Black Sea port of Odesa, the country’s only port still under their control. But the Biden administration for now has ruled out sending military ships into the region, which would risk Russian retaliation. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told reporters Tuesday that de-mining Ukraine’s ports and navigating Russia’s naval blockade “would be a high-risk military operation that would require significant levels of effort.”

Instead, the administration is planning to keep sending weapons to help Ukraine fight off Russian forces attacking Odesa and eastern regions of the country, while pushing to open up more land routes to move grain.

Biden officials were originally hesitant to publicly connect Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to likely devastating food shortages and price hikes around the world, concerned it would panic Americans unnecessarily (since the U.S. is a major grain exporter, the domestic market is insulated from the worst of the Ukraine-related shocks). But in the past few weeks, the president has increasingly warned of the Russian blockade triggering long-term damage to global economies and strained food systems while pushing up already high food prices. Discussing the more than 20 million tons of grain trapped at Ukraine’s ports, Biden noted that “normally, that would have already been exported into the world market,” Biden said during remarks on the economy Friday. “But because of Putin’s invasion and a blockade of the port at which they could take that grain out for the rest of the world, it’s not.”

And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned this week that Russia’s crippling military blockade in the Black Sea is threatening to unleash mass starvation, protests and migration around the world amid rising global hunger. U.S. officials expect the global fallout to worsen over the summer, risking widespread unrest this fall.

There are some small signs of progress on other efforts to get some grain out of Ukraine. Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko, a Putin ally, told the U.N.’s Guterres on Friday that Belarus would be willing to discuss allowing Ukraine to ship grain through its territory to Baltic Sea ports, if Belarus could also use those ports to ship goods.

The chair of the African Union, Senegal’s President Macky Sall, also met with Putin on Friday and planned to press him on the blockade, which has been keeping critical food supplies from many African countries already reeling from severe drought.

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