Russia said Monday it is ready to allow an extension to a Ukraine grain export deal that has helped bring down global food prices, but only for 60 days.
A Russian delegation at talks with senior U.N. officials described the conversations Monday as 'comprehensive and frank' but said Russia wanted to see 'tangible progress' on a parallel agreement on Russian exports before the Ukraine grain deal again comes up for renewal.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative allows for Ukraine - one of the world's leading producers of grain - to safely ship food and fertilizer from three Ukrainian ports.
Latest Developments in Ukraine: March 13
The grain deal was brokered by the United Nations and Turkey last July to help ease a global food crisis and was extended for 120 days in November. That extension is due to expire on Saturday.
The Russian delegation at the talks in Geneva said in a statement Monday that 'while the commercial export of Ukrainian products is carried out at a steady pace, bringing considerable profits to Kyiv, restrictions on the Russian agricultural exporters are still in place.'
'The sanctions exemptions for food and fertilizers announced by Washington, Brussels and London are essentially inactive,' it said.
Russia has been struggling to export grain and fertilizer due to a range of factors, including banking restrictions imposed by Western countries and high insurance costs.
Ukraine's infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, said Russia's decision to extend the Black Sea Grain Initiative for only 60 days goes against the agreement.
'[The grain] agreement involves at least 120 d. of extension, therefore Russia's position to extend the deal only for 60 d. contradicts the document signed by Turkey and the UN,' Kubrakov said on Twitter.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters in Washington on Monday that the deal is 'a critical instrument at a critical time.'
U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said Monday that 'the United Nations remains totally committed to the Black Sea Grain Initiative, as well as our efforts to facilitate the export of Russian food and fertilizer.'
On the front lines
The battle for eastern Ukraine's Bakhmut featured fierce fighting on Monday, according to both sides, as the monthslong struggle for control of the area raged on.
Ukrainian service members fire a howitzer M119 at a front line, near the city of Bakhmut, March 10, 2023.
Ukraine's military said it was using artillery, tanks and other weapons to repel Russian attempts to capture the city.
Britain's Defense Ministry has assessed in recent days that Russia's Wagner paramilitary group controls most of the eastern part of Bakhmut, with Ukrainian forces holding the western portion.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Monday that Ukraine's future depends on the outcome of key battles in Ukraine's east, including in Bakhmut.
'It is very tough in the east - very painful,' Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address Monday.
Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukrainian ground forces, said the situation around the city 'remains difficult.'
'Wagner's assault units are advancing from several directions, trying to break through the defenses of our troops and advance to the central districts of the city,' he said.
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin described the situation Sunday as 'very tough,' with the fighting getting more difficult the closer his forces get to the city center.
Russia has targeted Bakhmut as a key part of its wider goal to seize the Donbas region.
Zelenskyy has vowed to defend Bakhmut, while some allies, including U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, have cautioned that a Ukrainian defeat would not amount to a turning point in the conflict.
Russia sees the capture of the city as important for providing a path to seize the rest of the surrounding Donetsk region.
Possible Xi visit to Russia
Reuters news agency is reporting that Chinese President Xi Jinping could visit Russia as soon as next week, citing anonymous sources. The possible trip follows a long-standing invitation by Russian President Vladimir Putin for Xi to visit Moscow.
Neither Russia nor China have confirmed such a visit.
'As a rule, announcements of official foreign visits are coordinated synchronously by mutual agreement of the parties,' Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. 'When there is such readiness, we will let you know.'
The Wall Street Journal reported that there are also plans underway for Xi to speak by video link to Zelenskyy for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine.
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday that Ukraine has not confirmed a call between the two leaders.
He said Washington has been publicly and privately encouraging Xi to talk to Zelenskyy so that the Chinese leader can hear 'not just the Russian perspective' on the war.
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.