A grain shipment has left the port of Odesa for the first time in months, in a crucial test of a deal between Russia and Ukraine intended to alleviate soaring global food prices.
The Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni, carrying 26,000 tonnes of Ukrainian corn, left the Black Sea Port at 9:48am local time, the ministry of infrastructure said, after weeks of negotiations brokered by Turkey and the UN.
It is the first such vessel to depart from Odesa since late February, when Russia invaded Ukraine, sparking off a conflict that has left as many as 47mn people globally at risk of acute hunger, according to the World Food Programme. The Ukrainian government said another 16 ships were awaiting departure.
“This is a welcome first step towards mitigating the global food crisis which was enhanced by Russia’s illegitimate aggression and blockage of Ukrainian ports, in addition to mining and destroying the fields in Ukraine,” said an EU official.
“We look forward to the implementation of the whole deal . . . The negative consequences of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and blocking the Ukraine ports are affecting the most vulnerable people in Africa, in Asia and in the Middle East.”
The Razoni was due to arrive in Istanbul on Tuesday, according to a statement by the Joint Co-ordination Centre, established in line with the UN-led grain agreement.
After reaching the city, it was expected to undergo checks at the centre, which is staffed by Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and UN officials as part of the so-called Black Sea Grain Initiative. Turkey’s defence ministry said the Razoni would then take its cargo to the port of Tripoli in Lebanon.
Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba hailed it as a “day of relief” for large importers of Ukrainian grain, especially in the Middle East and Asia, while the US embassy in Kyiv said it was watching for “continued implementation” of the agreement.
The Kremlin described the ship’s departure as “extremely positive” news. Dmitry Peskov, president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, said the resumption of commercial maritime traffic in the Black Sea was “a good chance to test the effectiveness of how the mechanisms work” under an agreement struck in Istanbul to allow Ukraine to export grain.
“We will hope that all the agreements will be fulfilled from all sides and the mechanism will work effectively,” Peskov said, according to Russian news agency Interfax.
The other 16 ships trapped in Odesa and nearby ports after the invasion are carrying a tiny fraction of the more than 22mn tonnes of wheat, corn and other grains that remain in the country.
Ukraine said it was starting to accept applications from new vessels to pick up grain, and hoped to reach full capacity within weeks.
But owners of vessels entering Odesa are still working out the logistics of insuring their ships, cargo and personnel, which was complicated by Russian missile strikes on the port late last month, which wounded several people.
Private international operators are in a “wait and watch” mode, said a person familiar with the issue, with many vessels having long ago been reassigned to different routes.
Russia claimed to have hit military infrastructure and sunk a Ukrainian navy vessel, while Ukraine said the attack, a day after the agreement was signed, would imperil or delay the implementation of the exports accord.
Long known as the breadbasket of Europe, Ukraine is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of the cereal. It accounts for 80 per cent of Lebanon’s wheat imports and is a big supplier for countries including Somalia, Syria and Libya.
Additional reporting by Alice Hancock in Brussels