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Ukraine’s sudden exit derails new Türkiye-mediated Black Sea deal

Negotiations spanning two months between Russia, Ukraine and Türkiye aimed at ensuring Black Sea shipping safety reportedly reached an agreement, which was poised for announcement by Ankara. However, Kyiv’s sudden withdrawal thwarted the deal, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The negotiations were mediated by Türkiye after nudging by the United Nations, according to the sources who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of such talks.

A deal was reached in March “to ensure the safety of merchant shipping in the Black Sea,” and though Ukraine did not want to sign it formally, Kyiv gave its assent for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to announce it on March 30, the day before critical regional elections, the sources said.

“At the very last minute, Ukraine suddenly pulled out, and the deal was scuttled,” one of the sources said.

Three other people confirmed that version of events. Russia, Ukraine and Türkiye declined to comment.

It was not immediately clear why Ukraine pulled out. The people who spoke to Reuters said they did not know what had prompted Kyiv’s decision.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in February that without new U.S. military aid, Ukraine would not be able to defend a Black Sea shipping corridor hugging its western Black Sea coast near Romania and Bulgaria.

The talks on the shipping deal, which have not been reported before, offer a glimpse of the quiet diplomacy going on behind closed doors on ways to bring the two warring sides to negotiation, if only, at first, about merchant shipping.

On the report, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that Russia and Türkiye have a lot of issues on the agenda of bilateral contacts, including those related to the Black Sea.

“Indeed, we have many different topics on the agenda with our Turkish partners, we are discussing various issues, including issues related to the Black Sea. But I have nothing to say specifically about this media report,” Peskov told reporters.

NATO member Türkiye, which shares a maritime border with both Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea, has sought to maintain good ties with both nations since Moscow’s full-scale invasion in 2022. It has voiced support for its territorial integrity but also opposes sanctions on Russia

When asked for a comment on the report, United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said: “We still hope that freedom of navigation in the Black Sea will prevail.”

Türkiye and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres have been trying for months to get merchant shipping to sail more freely through the Black Sea, which in some areas has been turned into a naval war zone since the conflict started.

Türkiye hosted peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in 2022 but has since complained that no diplomatic step has been taken to advance these discussions. It has repeatedly offered to host further talks, saying a summit of leaders was needed.

The Black Sea is a key route for both Russia and Ukraine to get bulk products such as grain, fertilizer and oil to world markets, though sea shipping volumes have fallen significantly since the war.

Russia-Ukraine talks

The text of the deal, a copy of which Reuters has seen, said that Türkiye “as part of its mediation efforts” had reached agreements with Ukraine and Russia “on ensuring free and safe navigation of merchant vessels in the Black Sea” in compliance with the Montreux Convention of the Regime of the Straits.

That 1936 deal gives Türkiye control over the Bosporus and Çanakkale Strait and the power to regulate the transit of naval warships.

It also guarantees the free passage of civilian vessels in peacetime and restricts the passage of ships not belonging to Black Sea countries.

Under the deal almost announced on March 30, both Moscow and Kyiv would have offered security guarantees to merchant vessels in the Black Sea, committing not to strike or to seize or search them as long as they were either empty or had declared a non-military cargo.

“These guarantees do not apply to warships, civilian vessels carrying military goods (with the exception of maritime transportation agreed upon by the Parties within the framework of international missions),” the draft agreement said.

“The Republic of Türkiye informs the U.N. Secretary-General that the agreement has been reached and is being implemented through the mediation of the Republic of Türkiye,” the draft said. “The agreement comes into force upon announcement.”

Türkiye and the United Nations helped mediate the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal struck in July 2022 that allowed the safe Black Sea export of nearly 33 million metric tons of Ukrainian grain.

Russia withdrew from the agreement in July 2023, complaining that its own food and fertilizer exports faced serious obstacles.

Ankara has sought to convince Russia to return to the Black Sea Grain Initiative, and Erdoğan has said alternatives to the deal could not provide a lasting solution.

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