ANKARA – The first ship carrying Ukrainian grain set out Monday from the port of Odesa under an internationally brokered deal to unblock the embattled country's agricultural exports and ease the growing global food crisis.
The Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship Razoni sounded its horn as it departed with over 26,000 tons of corn destined for Lebanon.
“The first grain ship since Russian aggression has left port,” Ukrainian Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov declared on Twitter.
Russia and Ukraine signed agreements in Istanbul with Turkey and the U.N. on July 22, clearing the way for Ukraine to export 22 million tons of grain and other agricultural products that have been stuck in Black Sea ports because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine more than five months ago. The deals also allow Russia to export grain and fertilizer.
As part of the agreements, safe corridors through the mined waters outside Ukraine's ports were established.
Ukraine and Russia are major global suppliers of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil, with the fertile Black Sea region long known as the breadbasket of Europe. The holdup of shipments because of the war has worsened rising food prices worldwide and threatened hunger and political instability in developing nations.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sounded a cautious note. Calling the shipment “the first positive signal that there is a chance to stop the spread of a food crisis in the world,” he also urged international partners to closely monitor Moscow’s compliance with the deal.
“We cannot have the illusions that Russia will simply refrain from trying to disrupt Ukrainian exports,” Zelenskyy said.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov hailed the ship’s departure as “very positive,” saying it would help test the “efficiency of the mechanisms that were agreed to during the talks in Istanbul.”
Under the agreements, ships going in and out of Ukrainian ports will be subject to inspection to make sure that incoming vessels are not carrying weapons and that outgoing ones are bearing only grain, fertilizer or related food items, not any other commodities.
The Razoni was scheduled to dock early Wednesday in Istanbul, where teams of Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and U.N. officials were set to board it for inspection.
More ships are expected to leave from Ukraine’s ports through the safe corridors. At Odesa, 16 more vessels, all blocked since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, were waiting their turn, with others to follow, Ukrainian authorities said.
But some shipping companies are not yet rushing to export food across the Black Sea as they assess the danger of mines and the risk of Russian rockets hitting grain warehouses and ports.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who proposed the grain deal in April, said the Razoni was "loaded with two commodities in short supply: corn and hope.”
“Hope for millions of people around the world who depend on the smooth running of Ukraine’s ports to feed their families,” he said.
Lebanon, the corn’s destination, is in the grip of a severe financial crisis. A 2020 explosion at its main port in Beirut shattered its capital city and destroyed grain silos. Lebanon imports mostly wheat from Ukraine but also buys its corn for making cooking oil and animal feed.
Kubrakov said the shipments will also help Ukraine’s war-shattered economy.
“Unlocking ports will provide at least $1 billion in foreign exchange revenue to the economy and an opportunity for the agricultural sector to plan for next year,” he said.
Hearing the ship sound its horn as it left port delighted Olena Vitalievna, an Odesa resident.
“Finally, life begins to move forward and there are some changes in a positive direction," she said. "In general, the port should live its own life because Odesa is a port city. We live here. We want everything to work for us, everything to bustle.”
The resumption of the grain shipments came as fighting raged elsewhere in Ukraine, with Russia pressing its offensive in the east while Ukraine tries to retake territory in the Russian-occupied south.
Ukraine’s presidential office said at least three civilians were killed and 16 wounded by Russian shelling in the Donetsk region over the past 24 hours. Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko repeated a call for all residents to evacuate, emphasizing the need to remove about 52,000 children still there.
Two civilians were killed and two seriously wounded when Russian forces fired missiles at a bus evacuating people from a village in the southern Kherson region, according to Oleksandr Vilkul, head of the military administration in the city of Kryvyi Rih.
Ukrainian authorities have been calling on civilians in that region, which was overrun by Russian troops early in the war, to evacuate ahead of a planned counteroffensive.
More shelling was reported in Kharkiv in the northeast and Mykolaiv in the south.
Analysts warned that the continuing fighting could still upend the grain deal.
“The departure of the first vessel doesn’t solve the food crisis; it’s just the first step that could also be the last if Russia decides to continue attacks in the south," said Volodymyr Sidenko, an expert with the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center think tank.
In other developments:
— In Washington, President Joe Biden approved an additional $550 million in military aid to Ukraine, including more ammunition for howitzers and for the new American-supplied multiple rocket launchers that are making a difference on the battlefield. The package brings total U.S. military assistance to Ukraine to approximately $8.7 billion since the start of the Biden administration.
— Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman said he had written to his Russian counterpart suggesting a joint visit to the Olenivka prison, where dozens of Ukrainian POWs were killed in an explosion Friday. Dmitry Lubets said the Russian side indicated it would consider it.
Both sides have blamed each other for the blast at the prison, which is in Russian-controlled territory. Ukrainian officials maintain the explosion was caused by a bomb set off inside the building.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has also requested access to the prison, but so far has been turned down.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Jon Gambrell in Dubai contributed.