Russia has said that it will end its blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports only if the West agrees to lift sanctions.
Andrei Rudenko, the Russian deputy foreign minister, said today that Moscow would be willing to create a “humanitarian corridor” for vessels carrying food to leave Ukraine, in exchange for the removal of trade sanctions and financial restrictions.
About 22 million tonnes of grain are currently stuck in Ukraine, one of the world’s biggest producers of wheat.
“Solving the food problem requires a comprehensive approach, including the removal of sanctions that have been imposed on Russian exports and financial transactions,” Rudenko said.
The senior diplomat also demanded that Ukraine remove mines which Russia itself planted in the Black Sea in the weeks after the invasion.
However, Moscow has turned down a proposal from the Italian government to clear the mines, a source told The Times.
“We were ready to send in minesweepers but Russia said no about three weeks ago,” the Italian government source said. “We understand Turkey is now trying to persuade the Russians.”
The source said one month to six weeks would be needed to sweep for both Russian and Ukrainian mines to create a safe channel for vessels. The Italian navy could potentially use its Lerici and Gaeta class minesweepers to do this, he added.
Several Soviet-era YaM and YarM naval mines have already been discovered and neutralised by Turkish and Romanian authorities, after the bombs drifted into their waters.
By blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline, the Russian navy has placed a stranglehold on the Ukrainian economy by preventing shipments — which account for about £15 billion a year in export revenue — from leaving.
Ukraine has only about a month and a half to get grain supplies out of the country before the start of the next harvest.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum yesterday, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, accused Russia of weaponising food supplies and stealing Ukrainian grain from occupied territories.
“I strongly deny this. We don’t steal from anyone,” Rudenko told reporters.
The minister also strongly rebuffed Lithuania’s proposal to create a “coalition” of naval powers to escort Ukrainian cargo via the Black Sea. This proposal “would seriously aggravate the situation in the Black Sea region,” Rudenko said.
Western nations have imposed severe sanctions aimed at hobbling the Russian economy. President Biden said the US would not extend a waiver set to expire today that enabled Russia to continue to pay US bondholders.
The decision could push Moscow closer to the brink of default, but unlike in most default situations, Russia is not short of money.
Russia’s debt repayment dues pale in comparison to its oil and gas revenues, which stood at £22 billion in April alone thanks to high energy prices.
Kyiv and its allies are looking at alternative means of exporting the country’s grain, including transporting supplies by rail to friendly ports on the Baltic. Yesterday, Lithuania received its first rail delivery for onward shipment.
However, if the 20 million tonnes of grain are to be exported from Ukraine before they go rotten, rail cannot be the only option. At full capacity, Ukraine’s railroads could support only about 1.5 million tonnes of grain exports per month, according to Valerii Tkachov, Ukrainian railways deputy director of the commercial department.
In London this week, Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, proposed a naval escort to protect the grain ships as they headed through the Black Sea and past Russian warships. The proposal was backed by Liz Truss, the foreign secretary.