Moscow was pressing the West to lift sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine, seeking to shift the blame for a growing food crisis that has been worsened by Kyiv’s inability to ship millions of tons of grain and other agricultural products due to the conflict.
Britain immediately accused Russia of “trying to hold the world to ransom”, insisting there would be no sanctions relief, and a top US diplomat blasted the “sheer barbarity, sadistic cruelty and lawlessness” of the invasion.
Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but the war, including a Russian blockade of its ports, has halted much of that flow, endangering world food supplies. Many of these ports are now also heavily mined.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tried to put the blame squarely on the sanctions.
“We accuse western countries of taking a series of unlawful actions that has led to the blockade,” he said in a call with reporters.
Russia is also a significant grain exporter, and Mr Peskov said the West “must cancel the unlawful decisions that hamper chartering ships and exporting grain”.
His comments appeared to be an effort to lump the blockade of Ukrainian exports with what Russia says are its difficulties in moving its own goods.
Western officials have dismissed these claims. US secretary of state Antony Blinken noted last week that food, fertiliser and seeds were exempt from sanctions imposed by the US and many others — and that Washington was working to ensure countries knew the flow of these goods should not be affected.
With the war grinding into its fourth month, world leaders have ramped up calls for solutions.
“This food crisis is real, and we must find solutions,” World Trade Organisation director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said on Wednesday at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
She said about 25 million tons of Ukrainian grain was in storage and another 25 million tons could be harvested next month.
European countries have tried to ease 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 for the bulk of the exports.
At the same time, the Russian defence ministry proposed a corridor to allow foreign ships to leave Black Sea ports and another to allow vessels to leave Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.
Mikhail Mizintsev, who heads Russia’s National Defence Control Centre, said 70 foreign vessels from 16 countries were in six ports on the Black Sea, including Odesa and Kherson. He did not specify how many might be ready to carry food.
Ukraine expressed scepticism about the Russian proposal. Foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said his country was ready to agree on safe corridors in principle — but that it was not sure if it could trust Russia to abide by any agreement.
Meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin insisted that western attempts to isolate Russia would fail and be counterproductive, listing broken food supply chains among the economic problems the West was facing.
Speaking via video link to members of the Eurasian Economic Forum that includes several ex-Soviet nations, Mr Putin said “it’s impossible, utterly unrealistic in the modern world” to isolate Russia, adding that “those who try to do it primarily hurt themselves”.
On the battlefield, Russian forces continued to press their offensive in several parts of the eastern Donbas region, according to the general staff of the Ukrainian military.
This industrial heartland of coal mines and factories is now the focus of fighting after Russia suffered a series of setbacks and shifted to more limited goals.