European leaders have stepped up diplomatic efforts to unblock Russia’s hold on Ukraine’s grain supplies as Kyiv’s prospects in the eastern Donbas region worsen and the risk of a global food crisis mounts.
Vladimir Putin told his German and French counterparts Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron in a phone call on Saturday that Moscow was willing to find ways to unblock grain exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and could increase its own fertiliser and agriculture exports if relevant sanctions are lifted.
The three leaders discussed whether a negotiated solution could be found to open the port of Odesa to allow grain exports to leave Ukraine, according to an Elysée briefing after the call. Macron and Scholz insisted on the urgency of lifting the blockade on the port to “avoid a global food crisis”, the Elysée said.
The French and German leaders “noted the Russian president’s promise to allow ships to access the port to export grain without it being used militarily by Russia — if the port was demined in advance”, according to the briefing.
Berlin said the call lasted 80 minutes and was “devoted to Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine and efforts to end it”.
The moves come after Russian forces stepped up their attacks on Ukraine’s forces in the eastern Donbas region. After previously vowing to drive Russia from the entire country, Ukraine has become increasingly gloomy about its chances of holding the region after a hitherto stuttering Russian offensive broke through defences in Luhansk and threatened to encircle Sievierodonetsk.
The risk of a global food crisis has been intensifying since Putin launched his all-out invasion of Ukraine, a major grain producer and exporter, on February 24. Russian fertiliser and agricultural exports have also been disrupted, for which Moscow blames western sanctions.
Putin told Macron and Scholz that Russia “is ready to contribute to finding options for unimpeded grain exports”, according to a summary of his words shared by the Kremlin in a statement.
“Increased supplies of Russian fertilisers and agricultural products, which, of course, will require the lifting of relevant sanctions, will also help to ease tensions on the global food market,” the Kremlin reported Putin as saying.
The Russian president’s remarks were a reiteration of his message in a recent phone call with Italian prime minister Mario Draghi.
Ukraine and some of its western allies have accused Russia of blockading Odesa, holding up the export of large shipments of grain.
The three leaders also discussed the military situation in Ukraine, the Kremlin said. Putin said Russia was open to returning to the negotiating table with Ukraine and blamed Kyiv for stalling talks.
The Elysée said that Macron and Scholz repeated that any end to the war must respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. They also asked Russia to release 2,500 soldiers who defended the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol and have since been held by Russia, arguing that they were effectively prisoners of war.
Berlin said the French and German leaders had urged an immediate ceasefire and a withdrawal of Russian troops, and urged Putin to negotiate directly with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict.