Turkish authorities have detained a Russian cargo ship accused of carrying stolen grain from Ukraine, a senior Ukrainian diplomat said, as Ankara faces growing pressure from Kyiv to take action over the looting of its resources.
Vasyl Bodnar, Ukraine’s envoy to Ankara, said on Sunday that the Russia-flagged Zhibek Zholy had been prevented from entering the port of Karasu on northern Turkey’s Black Sea coast.
“We have full co-operation with the Turkish side,” he told Ukrainian television. “The ship has been arrested at the entrance to the port.”
Bodnar said Turkish authorities would decide on Monday how to deal with the vessel, which is the first cargo ship to be loaded at the port of Berdyansk, on Ukraine’s Azov Sea coast, since it was occupied by Russian forces earlier this year.
“The fate of the ship will be known tomorrow,” he said.
The Zhibek Zholy is the first known cargo vessel to have departed from one the newly seized ports for a destination outside Russia. Local Russian authorities heralded its departure as marking the reopening of the commercial port.
A senior Ukrainian government official in Kyiv confirmed the Turkish move, saying the arrest was “part of international co-operation in criminal matters”.
Russia’s Tass news agency reported that the ship had been denied entry to Karasu. Turkey’s foreign, trade and transport ministries did not respond to requests for comment.
Ukraine’s prosecutor-general asked Ankara last week to halt the ship, whose departure from Berdyansk was described by Bodnar as an attempt to “violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity”.
Ukraine has accused Moscow of stealing grain from land occupied by Russian forces, and of using occupied ports to ship it out of the country to sell on international markets.
Turkish authorities, who control the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits that connect the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, have previously appeared reluctant to take action against ships that Ukraine has said were carrying stolen grain, even as some of the vessels have docked at Turkish ports and their shipments sold to Turkish buyers.
Ankara has previously argued that, with some ships using falsified paperwork to suggest they were loaded in Russia rather than occupied Ukrainian territory, it is technically difficult to determine the true origin of their cargo. The Zhibek Zholy’s last acknowledged port of call was at Novorossiysk, a Russian harbour on the Black Sea’s north-eastern coast.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has performed a difficult balancing act since the outbreak of the conflict between Turkey’s Black Sea neighbours.
While his country is a Nato member that has supplied Kyiv with armed drones and limited Russian military access to its waters and airspace, the Turkish president has also sought to avoid angering Moscow, which is an important partner for Ankara on energy, trade and tourism — as well as in conflicts in Syria and Libya.
Turkey has, however, engaged in intense diplomacy along with the UN in a bid to establish a grain corridor to ensure safe passage for around 20mn tonnes of wheat currently trapped in Ukraine that must be exported before the summer harvest.
Officials in Kyiv have warned that unless Russia ends its blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, the country’s grain exports — almost 15 per cent of the world’s total — could be in peril, raising the threat of global food shortages.
Last week, Ukraine’s trade envoy and deputy economy minister told the Financial Times that Russia was using the blockade to assert dominance over global commodity markets.
Kyiv has said it cannot accept Moscow’s terms for ending the blockade, which include granting the Russian navy the right to inspect ships entering and leaving Ukrainian ports.
On Thursday, Russian forces withdrew from Snake Island, a strategic outpost close to Black Sea shipping lanes, following heavy bombardment from Ukraine. The move prompted hopes that the blockade would soon be broken.
Russia described its withdrawal from Snake Island as a “gesture of goodwill”, but launched deadly missile strikes on a town close to the Odesa port the following day, killing 21 people.