Disputed Russian freighter still stranded off Turkish coast
A Russian-flagged freighter at the center of a grain fight between Kyiv and Moscow remained anchored off Turkey’s Black Sea coast on Tuesday – four days after its unexpected arrival.
Ukraine alleges that the Zhibek Zholy sailed from its Kremlin-occupied port of Berdyansk after picking up confiscated wheat.
Moscow admits the 7,000 tonne vessel was sailing under the Russian flag but denies any wrongdoing.
And NATO member Turkey has said nothing official in public as it tries to keep relations open with Moscow and Kyiv while facing pressure from Ukraine to seize the ship.
The saga began when a Kremlin-based leader in southeastern Ukraine announced last Thursday the launch of the first official grain shipments across the Black Sea since Russia invaded its neighbor in February.
Russia claims to have “nationalized” Ukrainian state assets and purchased crops from local farmers. Ukraine says its grain is being stolen and used to fund Russia’s war effort.
Ship traffic websites then showed the Zhibek Zholy reaching the Turkish Black Sea port of Karasu and stopping about a kilometer (half a mile) offshore.
The ship’s arrival was announced by Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey – one of the most vocal officials in the whole dispute.
He asked Turkey on Twitter to take “corresponding action”, then told Ukrainian state television that the vessel had been seized by the local coast guard.
Turkish officials have still not commented, although the 140-metre (460ft) vessel was now clearly visible to holidaymakers lounging on the sandy Karasu beach.
“Vacuum of Authority”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters on Monday that the Zhibek Zholy had not reached its intended destination.
But he also downplayed Moscow’s role or the ship’s importance in Russia’s efforts to resume shipping from parts of Ukraine now under its control.
“We have to look at this situation,” Lavrov said.
“The ship really appears to be Russian, sailing under the Russian flag. I think it belongs to Kazakhstan, while the cargo was shipped under contract between Estonia and Turkey.”
Kazakhstan said the vessel was controlled by its national railway company, but insisted it should not be blamed.
“There should be no consequences for Kazakhstan,” Kazakh Industry Minister Kairbek Uskenbayev told reporters.
“There were no restrictions on the Russian company currently leasing this vessel.”
A senior Turkish official source told AFP on condition of anonymity that “the problem arose due to a vacuum of authority at the starting post”.
“We are continuing to review the ship’s documents,” the Turkish official said.
But beachgoers watching the diplomatic drama unfold before them in Karasu – a town of 30,000 that swells during the summer tourist season – say little has happened on the ship since its arrival.
“He never moved,” said Salise Aktan, a local pensioner.
“On Sunday, a boat approached the ship and then left,” added Gulay Erol, another beachgoer.
“I don’t know why,” said the 33-year-old.
Turkey’s reluctance underscores the difficulty of its position in the war.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has had a tumultuous but close working relationship with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
He tried to use this access to push Turkey into the midst of diplomatic negotiations and talks on resuming grain shipments from Ukrainian ports.
But its relationship with Russia is complicated by Turkey’s international commitments as a member of NATO’s defense bloc.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last month that Ankara was investigating reports of Ukrainian grain seized by Russia reaching its Black Sea shores.
But he added that Turkey had been unable to find shipments of stolen Ukrainian grain.
Ankara is also supplying Ukraine with combat drones that have proven effective in slowing Russia’s advance into the Donbass war zone.
Erdogan told a NATO summit in Madrid last week that his country was trying to pursue “a balanced policy” because of its heavy dependence on Russian energy.
Turkish defense officials met with a Ukrainian delegation on Monday.
No details of those talks have been announced.