Putin claims progress made in talks over lifting Ukrainian wheat blockade

Russian president makes comments in Tehran, where he had a meeting with leaders from Turkey and Iran

Vladimir Putin has claimed on a trip to Tehran that progress has been made that may allow Russia to lift the blockade on Ukrainian wheat, an issue that is threatening famine across Africa.

“I want to thank you for your mediation efforts,” the Russian president told Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his Turkish counterpart, in comments released by the Kremlin.

“With your mediation, we have moved forward,” Putin said. “Not all issues have yet been resolved, but the fact that there is movement is already good.”

It was only Putin’s second visit outside Russia since his invasion of Ukraine and reflected his determination to show he is not as isolated as the west claims, but retains an influence in the region after the visit to the Middle East last week by Joe Biden.

Putin held bilateral talks not only with Erdoğan, but also with the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi.

Khamenei offered Putin support over the Ukraine conflict. “War is a harsh and difficult issue, and Iran is not at all pleased that ordinary people suffer from it, but in the case of Ukraine, if you had not taken the initiative, the other side would have caused the war with its own initiative,” he said.

“If the road is open to Nato, it knows no boundaries and if it was not stopped in Ukraine, they would start the same war some time later under the pretext of Crimea.”

Putin was reported to have replied: “No one is in favour of war, and the loss of ordinary people’s lives is a great tragedy, but the behaviour of the west made us have no choice but to react. Some European countries said that that they had been against Ukraine’s membership of Nato, but then agreed under American pressure, which shows their lack of independence.”

Although there was broad agreement about Ukraine, tensions were on display when Khamenei warned Turkey against an incursion into northern Syria.

Erdoğan, possibly taking advantage of Putin’s distractions in Ukraine, has been threatening a new military offensive in northern Syria to drive away US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters from Turkey’s borders. The operation is part of Turkey’s plan to create a safe zone along its border with Syria that would encourage the voluntary return of Syrian refugees, a move that would be popular inside Turkey as Erdoğan prepares for difficult elections next year.

But in a meeting with Khamenei he was warned against such a move. “Any sort of military attack in northern Syria will definitely harm Turkey, Syria and the entire region, and will benefit terrorists,” Iran’s leader said, stressing the need to “bring the issue to an end through talks”. He said he also opposed any threat to the integrity of Syria.

In recent weeks Syrian Kurds have asked Iran and Russia to defend them against Turkish threats. Russian military officials have flown to the region in a bid to broker a deal between the Syrian government and the Syrian Kurds that would make a Turkish incursion more difficult.

Erdoğan was also seeking a signal from Putin that he is willing to lift the Russian naval blockade preventing Ukrainian grain from leaving Black Sea ports. The EU said on Tuesday it is prepared to lift some sanctions on Russian banks in relation to the trade of food.

Turkey, a Nato member, has a special responsibility under the 1936 Montreux convention for naval traffic entering the Black Sea. It is proposing that Russia allows the Ukrainian grain ships to leave Odesa on designated routes so long as checks are made that the vessels are not carrying arms.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – the world’s biggest wheat supplier – has sent prices of grain soaring across the world, compounding pre-existing food crises. Dozens of ships have been stranded and 22m tonnes of grain are stuck in silos at Ukrainian ports.

Hulusi Akar, the Turkish defence minister, has said Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the UN will sign a deal this week on the grain exports corridor after talks in Istanbul. A coordination centre is to be opened in Istanbul allowing routing of those exports via the Black Sea.

Erdoğan also signed economic and trade cooperation agreements with Iran, and said he opposed western sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme. The US has again threatened to increase sanctions on Iran if it does not agree to revive the nuclear deal.

Putin was looking to use the talks to bolster regional opposition to any US-proposed defence pacts between Gulf states and Israel, an idea that some in Washington see as a necessary bulwark if Iran was to go ahead with its nuclear programme. Russia is a party to the nuclear talks that are stalled in Vienna due to a US refusal to lift sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards. The US says these sanctions were not imposed due to the nuclear deal but due to the Revolutionary Guards’ malign activities across the region.

In a memorandum of understanding sealed before Putin’s arrival, the National Iranian Oil Company signed an agreement potentially worth $40bn (£33bn) with Russia’s Gazprom.

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The talks may also touch on Iran’s long experience of circumventing US sanctions, and whether there is room for cooperation between Moscow and Tehran on defeating US measures. The long-term vision is for the two countries to reduce dependence on the dollar for trading, but in the short term there may be discussions over Russia buying Iranian drones for use in Ukraine.

The Russian ambassador to Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, said in an interview with Iran’s Shargh newspaper last Saturday that Iran and Russia were now in a “single fortress”.


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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