The first grain ship to leave Ukraine and cross the Black Sea under a wartime deal passed inspection Wednesday in Istanbul and headed on to Lebanon. Ukraine said 17 other vessels were “loaded and waiting permission to leave,” but there was no word yet on when they could depart.
A joint civilian inspection team spent three hours checking the cargo and crew of the Sierra Leone-flagged ship Razoni, which left Odesa on Monday carrying Ukrainian corn, a U.N. statement said.
The Joint Coordination Center team included officials from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations, who signed deals last month to create safe Black Sea shipping corridors to export Ukraine’s desperately needed agricultural products as Russia’s war upon its neighbor grinds on.
Ukraine is a major global grain supplier but the war had blocked most exports, so the July 22 deal aimed to ease food security around the globe. World food prices have been soaring in a crisis blamed on the war, supply chain problems and COVID-19.
Although U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Razoni’s journey a “significant step,” no other ships have left from Ukraine in the past 48 hours and no explanations have been given for that delay.
A U.N. statement said inspectors “gained valuable information” from the Razoni’s crew about its voyage through the Black Sea maritime humanitarian corridor and the coordination center was “fine-tuning procedures.”
The Turkish Ministry of National Defense tweeted a picture of an inspector reaching into the Razoni’s hold and touching some of its 26,527 tons of corn for chicken feed. The Razoni’s horn rang out as the inspectors left the ship, and then it headed off to Lebanon.
Checking for weapons
The checks seek to ensure that outbound cargo ships carry only grain, fertilizer or food and not any other commodities, and that inbound ships are not carrying weapons.
An estimated 20 million tons of grain – most of it said to be destined for livestock – has been stuck in Ukraine since the start of the six-month-old war. Ukraine’s top diplomat said Wednesday that more ships are ready to carry much-needed grain and food out of the country’s Black Sea ports.
“Further ships are already ready for departure. They will depart from the ports that are part of the grain initiative in accordance with the agreed schedule, and we hope that everything will work out and the Russian Federation will not take any steps that would destroy these agreements,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said at a joint press conference in Kyiv with his Estonian counterpart.
Kuleba said the U.N.-backed deal “is beneficial to Ukrainian farmers, it is beneficial to the Ukrainian economy, and it is beneficial to the world.”
“ It is now Ukraine that is, literally, saving the world from further growth in food prices and from hunger in individual countries,” he said.
Still, a Black Sea voyage entails significant risks because of the war. Two civilian ships hit explosive devices there last week near the Danube River’s Bystre estuary, according to Bridget Diakun, a data reporter at Lloyd’s List, a global shipping publication.
Analysts say authorities’ first priority is bringing out vessels that have been stuck for months at the three Ukrainian ports covered by the deal. Sixteen ships loaded with grain have been stuck at the ports of Odesa and Chernomorsk since Russia’s invasion, according to Lloyd’s List.
The U.N. official who helped negotiate the Russian deal with the U.N. aimed at ensuring unrestricted access to world markets for the country’s food and fertilizer says there are still obstacles to overcome.
U.N. trade chief Rebeca Grynspan told a U.N. news conference Wednesday by video from Geneva that some obstacles Russia faces in terms of finance, insurance, shipping and transport of its grain and fertilizer have been clarified by the United States and European Union.
But she said there is still a major bottleneck – getting the private sector to accept that the U.N.-Russia agreement will enable their companies to be involved in getting Russian grain and fertilizer shipped to global markets without the threat of sanctions.
There are no U.S. or EU sanctions on food or fertilizer exports, but companies engaged in related fields have been reluctant to take part.
Russia’s war with Ukraine has had “a chilling effect on the private sector,” Grynspan said. “So, an important part of the private sector has stopped their dealings in food and fertilizer.”
Grynspan, the secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, said some grain and fertilizer are being exported from Russia but at very high costs. She explained that half the increase in grain prices comes from increases in transport and logistics costs.
“That is the pressure that we want to ease,” she said.
Grynspan said the U.S. and EU clarifications are being evaluated by the private sector “as we speak.”
Grain stockpiles are expected to keep growing. Despite the war, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal estimated his country would harvest up to 67 million tons of grain this year, up from 60 million tons last year.
A senior official from a leading Ukrainian farm association reckoned Ukraine would have about 50 million tons of grain for export this year.
Before the war, Ukraine exported around 5-6 million tons of grain per month, according to Denys Marchuk, the deputy head of the All-Ukrainian Agrarian Council.
Robert Badendieck and Mehmet Guzel in Istanbul, Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Joanna Kozlowska in London and Edith Lederer in New York contributed to this report.