Ukraine said Wednesday that a deal appears close to resume grain exports from Black Sea ports that have been blocked for months by Russia during its invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, without elaborating, said a deal was “two steps away” before talks about the exports began in Istanbul with officials from Russia, the United Nations and Turkey.
After the meeting ended, the United Nations said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will make an announcement about “developments in Istanbul” later Wednesday.
More than 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain are being stored in silos at the Black Sea port of Odesa, and dozens of ships have been stranded due to Russia's blockade. Turkey said it has 20 merchant ships waiting in the region that could be quickly loaded and dispatched to world markets.
Meanwhile, world health officials have been increasingly expressing concern about the impasse over the exports, particularly for its effect on food supplies in developing nations. Ukraine is a major exporter of wheat and grains such as barley and maize. It has also supplied nearly half of all the sunflower oil traded on global markets.
After three hours of talks, Turkey said the discussions had ended but gave no hint of a resolution. Russia's defense ministry said Moscow had put forward proposals to resolve the grain issue as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, the war raged on. Russia shelled Ukrainian cities across the industrialized eastern Donetsk province, part of the Donbas region Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to capture after failing earlier in the war to topple the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or take the capital, Kyiv.
Ukrainian official Kyrylo Tymoshenko said Russia also struck 28 settlements in the Mykolaiv region bordering the Black Sea, killing at least five civilians.
Zelenskyy told a conference in Asia via videolink that Russia had launched 2,960 missiles on Ukraine's cities so far during the 4 1/2-month war.
"Of course, this is Russia's tactic ... directed at chasing people out of our cities, and so that every Ukrainian feels fear," he said.
Britain’s defense ministry said Wednesday it expects Russian forces to focus on taking small towns near the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk as it tries to take control of the eastern Donbas region.
“The urban areas of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk likely remain the principal objectives for this phase of the operation,” the ministry said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address late Tuesday that “Russian shelling does not stop for a single day.”
“In the Donbas, offensive attempts do not stop, the situation there does not get easier, and the losses do not get smaller. We must remember this. We must see this, draw attention to this.”
Ukraine said Tuesday 52 Russians were killed in a long-range missile attack on an ammunition dump in southern Ukraine. Moscow disputed the claim, saying seven civilians had been killed.
Kyiv said the attack in the town of Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson region came after the United States supplied Ukraine with advanced HIMARS mobile artillery systems, which Ukraine said its forces were using with greater accuracy.
"Based on the results of our rocket and artillery units, the enemy lost 52 (people), a Msta-B howitzer, a mortar and seven armored and other vehicles, as well as an ammunition depot in Nova Kakhovka,” Ukraine’s southern military command said in a statement.
The region Ukraine hit is one that Russia seized after launching its invasion on February 24. With access to the Black Sea, the area is of strategic importance.
A Russian-installed official in Kherson gave a different version of events, saying at least seven people had been killed and that civilians and civilian infrastructure had been hit.
Russia’s TASS news agency quoted Vladimir Leontyev, head of the Russia-installed, Kakhovka district military-civilian administration, as saying at least seven people had been killed in the attack and about 60 wounded.
“There are still many people under the rubble. The injured are being taken to the hospital, but many people are blocked in their apartments and houses,” Leontyev said in the TASS account. He was also quoted as saying that warehouses, shops, a pharmacy, gas stations and a church had been hit.
Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of indiscriminately killing civilians in the war. The United Nations human rights office said Tuesday that 5,024 civilians had been killed in Ukraine since the invasion began, while adding that the actual toll was likely much higher.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.