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EU warns Russia’s block on Ukraine grain could starve thousands

Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports threatens grain supplies to tens of thousands of people vulnerable to starvation and must end, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned Monday.

“It’s an issue of life and death for many human beings. And the question is that Russia has to de-block and allow Ukrainian grain to be exported,” Borrell told reporters.

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators will meet UN and Turkish diplomats in Istanbul on Wednesday to discuss a possible agreement to end the months-long blockade of Ukraine’s ports.

President Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine in February and its forces have captured some Black Sea ports and bombarded others, including the key grain exporting outlet in the city of Odessa.

Ukraine has also mined the approaches to some of its ports to protect them from Russian assault.

But Ukraine’s farms are a major source of grain for the world market, in particular in the Middle East and Africa, where food supplies are critically tight.

“The most worrisome thing is the lack of food in many countries around the world, and there is not food because Russia is blocking the export of Ukrainian grain,” Borrell said.

Borrell spoke as he arrived at a meeting in Brussels of EU foreign ministers to discuss closing loopholes in their sanctions regime to punish Russia for the invasion.

He said that Ukraine’s European allies would do what they can to help Kyiv export its grain through overland routes and across the Danube river, but warned that the ports were key.

“So, I hope — and I think I have a hope — that this week it will be possible to reach an agreement to de-block this and other Ukrainian ports,” he said, referring to Odessa.

“The life of thousands — more than thousands — tens of thousands of people depends on this agreement. So it’s not a diplomatic game.”

– ‘Alternative route’ –

But Germany’s agriculture minister Cem Ozdemir did not share Borrell’s guarded optimism that the talks would bear fruit and reopen Black Sea shipping.

“There are the negotiations in Turkey. I don’t think much will come out of them. If you believe in Putin’s word, you might as well believe in Father Christmas or the Easter Bunny,” he said.

“I don’t believe the Black Sea will be safe again for Ukraine as long as Vladimir Putin or a comparable criminal in Moscow is in charge. Brussels must look for a permanent alternative route.”

Borrell said that if Wednesday’s UN talks failed, Brussels would continue to blame Russia for using the threat of starvation as “a weapon” in its conflict.

NATO member Turkey — on speaking terms with both Russia and Ukraine — has spearheaded efforts to resume the grain deliveries.

Turkish officials say they have 20 merchant ships waiting in the Black Sea that could be loaded quickly with Ukrainian grain.

But a Russian foreign ministry spokesman has stressed that Moscow would attend the meeting with a list of firm demands — including the right to search grain ships for weapons.

Ukraine has its own list of demands for security guarantees and has stressed the importance of the UN’s role in brokering the talks.