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There soon may be a deal to free up Ukrainian grain shipments blocked by Russia

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The United Nations appears to be on the verge of brokering a deal to get badly needed grain supplies from Ukraine to the rest of the world.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Right. These supplies have been held up by what's effectively been a Russian blockade on Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea. Millions of tons of grain have been piling up there. The Turkish government says a signing ceremony is supposed to happen today for an agreement between Russia, Ukraine, the U.N. and Turkey. This would facilitate the shipping of all that grain.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes joins us now from Moscow with details. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

FADEL: So we don't know for sure yet if this agreement will be finished today. There have been contentious negotiations for weeks. But can you just start by reminding us of how the war has endangered food supplies?

MAYNES: Yeah, sure. You know, this goes back to the fact that the conflict in Ukraine is unfolding against what's often called the breadbasket of Europe.

FADEL: Right.

MAYNES: The wider region is a key source of grains and fertilizers that normally ship out through the Black Sea to global markets. Only because of the fighting, Ukrainian grain can't make it out due to the presence of Russian warships. Meanwhile, Russian agricultural exports are also stuck, not because of Western sanctions on Russian grain or fertilizer - those don't exist - but because of snags due to penalties on Russian banking and shipping. And these two factors combined have really led to food shortages and rising food prices that are impacting the poorest countries in places like Latin America, Asia, East Africa, putting millions on the verge of famine.

FADEL: So in this negotiation, what are the contours of the deal they're chasing?

MAYNES: Well, you know, everyone says they want the grain to ship, but it's really Russia placing conditions on what might allow that to happen. Russia says it wants a comprehensive approach, one that links the release of Ukrainian grain with the lifting of restrictions on Russian agricultural exports. Ukraine and its allies call that blackmail and an attempt, really, to get sanctions relief. The key mediators here, first of all, are the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has lobbied a great deal with the leaders of Russia and Ukraine in recent months.

The other key player here is Turkey, which has hosted peace talks but also pitched itself as a go-between on this grain issue. And it makes sense, given Turkey's geography. You know, any shipments from the Black Sea have to pass through the Bosporus strait, which runs through Turkey, in order to get grain where it needs to go. We don't know the exact terms of the deal, but the outline suggests a role for the U.N. and Turkey to essentially play traffic cop. In other words, they'll offer to guarantee safe passage of ships containing grain out of the region while making sure that those coming in don't bring in contraband or weapons. And it's pretty clear that any deal will likely involve moving both Ukrainian grain and Russian ag, meaning Moscow is getting a good deal of what it's been demanding all along.

FADEL: So assuming they can get a deal, do we know when grain might actually start shipping?

MAYNES: Well, we don't. But clearly time is of the essence. Soon the harvest begins in this part of the world, and there's a rush to free up silos and, of course, get the grain out to countries in need. Now, President Putin has repeatedly said Russia's ready to guarantee shipments right away, but there's a host of complicating factors. For example, in these Russian-occupied territories in, say, east Ukraine - you know, whose grain is it now? There's also the issue of explosive mines in the waters that the Ukrainians put there to defend their ports from attack. And Russia has said repeatedly it won't attack if Ukraine de-mines the waters to allow grain shipments out. But that's a hard sell when Russia continues to fire missiles from the Black Sea onto Ukraine, including port cities like Odesa.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you so much for your reporting.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.