Ukraine and Russia are set to sign a deal Friday to unblock grain exports and relieve a global food crisis, as a critical Russian gas pipeline to Europe reopened.
But there was no respite in the conflict on the ground, with Russian artillery on Thursday pounding Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv, already scarred by weeks of shelling.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was due to arrive in Turkey on Thursday for the grain deal signing ceremony at Istanbul’s lavish Dolmabahce Palace on the Bosphorus Strait.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin tweeted that the agreement will be signed in Istanbul on Friday under the auspices of the Turkish leader, Guterres and Ukrainian and Russian delegations.
The first major agreement between the warring sides since Russia’s February invasion of its neighbour comes with global food prices soaring and people in some of the world’s poorest countries facing starvation.
The five-month war is being fought across one of Europe’s most fertile regions by two of the world’s biggest grain producers.
Up to 25 million tonnes of wheat and other grain have been blocked in Ukrainian ports by Russian warships and landmines Kyiv has laid to avert a feared amphibious assault.
Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko told AFP that Kyiv’s delegation would only accept solutions that guarantee the security of its southern regions, the position of its forces in the Black Sea and the safe export of its agricultural products.
The United States welcomed the deal but urged Russia to implement it in good faith.
‘We should never have been in this position in the first place,’ said State Department spokesman Ned Price, accusing Russia of ‘weaponising’ food.
In more good news for global markets, Russia on Thursday restored critical gas supplies to Europe through Germany via the Nord Stream pipeline after 10 days of maintenance.
However, suspicion lingered that the Kremlin would trigger an energy crisis on the continent this winter. European Union states have accused Russia of squeezing supplies in retaliation for Western sanctions over the war.
Germany, which is heavily dependent on Russian gas, had feared that Moscow would not reopen the pipeline after the scheduled work and accused Moscow of using energy as a ‘weapon’.
The resumption of gas supplies came a day after the European Commission unveiled emergency measures to circumvent Russian energy ‘blackmail’