Russia pressed for the West to lift sanctions because of its war in Ukraine, claiming that the punitive measures are preventing millions of tons of grain and other agricultural products from leaving Ukrainian ports, which is a cause of a global food crisis.
Ukraine is one of the world's largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but the war has prevented most of those products from leaving the country, threatening the world food supply.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tried to shift blame to Western sanctions on Thursday. We accuse Western countries of taking a series of unlawful actions that have led to the blockade. Western officials have dismissed Russia's claims that sanctions are responsible. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week that food, fertilizer and seeds are exempt from the U.S. and many other sanctions, and Washington is working to make sure countries know the flow of those goods shouldn't be affected.
With the war going on for a fourth month, world leaders have been ramping up calls for solutions this week.
World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that the food crisis is real, and we need to find solutions. If we don't find solutions, the countries that will suffer will be the poorer countries of the world. She said about 25 million tons of Ukrainian grain are currently in storage and another 25 million tons could be harvested next month.
The Russian Defense Ministry proposed Wednesday to open a corridor to allow foreign ships to leave Black Sea ports and allow vessels to leave Mariupol on the Azov Sea. Russia said the Mariupol port had to be cleared of mines first. Ukraine expressed skepticism about that proposal.
In Davos, Switzerland, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine was ready to agree on safe corridors in principle, but it was not sure if it could trust Russia to abide by any agreement.
He said that the issue was how to make sure that the moment we create this safe passage and the entry into the harbor is demined, how to make sure that at night or early in the morning Russia will not violate the agreement on the safe passage and its military vessels will not sneak into the harbor and attack Odesa. European countries have tried to slash the crisis by bringing grain out of the country by rail, but trains can carry only a small fraction of what Ukraine produces, and ships are needed to do the bulk of the exports.
Mikhail Mizintsev, head of Russia's National Defense Control Center, said that 70 foreign vessels from 16 countries are now in six ports on the Black Sea, including Odesa, Kherson and Mykolaiv. He didn't say how many people might be ready to carry food.
On the battlefield, the Ukrainian military General Staff said Thursday that Russian forces continued to press their offensive in several areas of the frontline Ukraine's eastern Donbas region. The industrial heartland of coal mines and factories is now the focus of fighting after Russia suffered a series of setbacks and war forced to pursue more limited goals.
Military officials said Russian forces continued their efforts to gain a foothold in the area of Sievierodonetsk, which is the only part of the Luhansk region of the Donbas in Ukrainian government control.
They said Russia also launched missile and airstrikes at infrastructure facilities across the country.