MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — A ship loaded with maize on Monday became the first cargo ship to depart from Ukraine in more than five months of war, amid Russia’s naval blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, raising hopes that much-needed food will soon reach the stricken countries. achieved through shortages and rising prices.
The ship’s voyage was the culmination of months of negotiations and an international campaign to get grain from Ukraine, one of the world’s pre-war granaries. Russia’s invasion and blockade, along with Western sanctions hampering Russian exports and factors such as drought and climate change, have greatly reduced global grain supplies, threatening tens of millions of people with famine, especially in the Middle East and Africa.
Mediators from the United Nations and Turkey, which shares the Black Sea coast with Russia and Ukraine, led months of talks in Istanbul. Though discussions seemed hopeless for weeks, the parties struck a deal in late July to release more than 20 million tons of grain.
The agreement could easily unravel: The ship, the Razoni, is sailing through a war zone, at the risk of attack or accident, and a breach of trust or disagreement between inspectors and officials leading the multinational operation could once again freeze ships in ports.
But if the journey that began Monday goes smoothly, it could be an important step towards easing shortages and lowering prices, although it cannot solve the causes of an impending global hunger crisis alone.
“Ensuring that grain, manure and other food-related products are available to developing countries at reasonable prices is a humanitarian imperative,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said Monday. “People on the brink of famine need these agreements to work, to survive.”
With such a high stakes and intense western and Ukrainian mistrust that Russia would actually let the cargo leave port, the ship’s departure from Odessa was closely monitored on Monday.
The Razoni, largely manned by Syrian sailors, was led out of the harbor by a tugboat. The ship and the tugboat, carrying 26,000 tons of corn, passed first through naval mines placed by Ukraine to prevent any amphibious assault by Russia, and then through the Russian naval vessels that largely control the Black Sea and allowed safe passage.
The ship was due to stop in Turkish waters on Tuesday for inspection by a joint team of Turkey, the United Nations, Ukraine and Russia, before continuing to the Lebanese port of Tripoli.
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Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kurbakov said the Razoni left around 9:30 a.m. local time. There are 16 more ships waiting to leave Odessa in the coming days, he said.
If successful, the grain export deal could have significant economic consequences for Ukraine. The country’s agriculture minister, Mykola Solskyi, said last week that $10 billion worth of grain is stored in Ukraine and the incoming crop would add another $20 billion to that amount. Ukraine is a leading exporter of wheat, barley, maize and sunflower oil.
In addition to the agreement on Ukrainian products, another agreement would allow Russia to export grain and fertilizers, further alleviating enormous pressure on markets and farmers, especially in the developing world. Russia, whose exports have been curtailed by Western sanctions, is a major supplier of fertilizers and, along with Ukraine, supplies more than a quarter of the world’s wheat.
But as the crossing of the Razoni River across the Black Sea sparked hopes of some degree of cooperation between the fighters, fighting on multiple fronts in Ukraine intensified.
Ukraine, which is preparing for a counter-offensive in the southern region of Kherson, has used long-range precision weapons recently supplied by the West to disrupt Russia’s supply lines and logistics. Ukrainian forces have attacked Russian command and control centers, hit supply routes, tried to isolate Russian troops in pockets and attract Ukrainian saboteurs behind enemy lines.
On Monday, Ukrainian officials said their troops, using American-supplied rocket artillery, blew up a Russian train carrying troops and equipment to fortify positions in southern Ukraine, killing dozens of soldiers and destroying many rail cars.
“According to intelligence data, all the drivers and engineers of the Russian railway company transporting military cargo from Crimea to the Kherson region have been killed,” Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the Interior Ministry, said Monday morning.
Although his claims could not be independently verified, video of an explosion and satellite images of the aftermath provided evidence that the Ukrainians had hit a Russian train along one of the two main railway lines running from Crimea to southern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military also said on Monday it had destroyed at least 15 ammunition depots in the south in recent weeks, depleting supplies enough to force Russia to use surface-to-air missiles to hit ground targets. Western analysts have said that as the war continues, Russia is relying more on munitions that are inaccurate, or designed for other uses, to bomb Ukrainian cities, inflict indiscriminate damage – and may indicate that it is running out of most advanced precision weapons.
The Pentagon said last week that Ukraine was using Western weapons more effectively and became very adept at attacking Russian command and control centers and destroying large amounts of Russian equipment. On Monday, the Biden administration announced another round of aid to Ukraine: $550 million in military aid, including more ammunition for 155-millimeter howitzer artillery pieces and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, which the United States has already supplied.
But for all its slow or faltering progress in the war, Russia retains enormous advantages in the size of its arsenal, and its military has shown the willingness and ability to attack the entire country, even if it focuses on winning. site in eastern Ukraine. There, Russia has covered city after city with overwhelming artillery fire as it tries to reposition ground forces to advance.
The strategy slowly gave Russia control over the eastern province of Luhansk, leaving many towns and villages in ruins. Since then, Russian troops have moved to fortify the south and penetrate another eastern province, Donetsk.
“Their tactics remain much the same as during the hostilities in the Luhansk region,” Serhiy Haidai, head of Ukraine’s regional government in Luhansk, said Monday.
He said that the Russians made daily attempts to launch an offensive against the city of Bakhmut, in Donetsk, but had so far failed to breach the main Ukrainian defense lines.
Russian forces have also continued shelling residential and military areas in and around the northeast city of Kharkov, pressuring Ukraine not to move too many of its defenses from there.
In Chuhuiv, in the Kharkiv region and just 10 miles from Russian lines, residents were still recovering from rocket attacks on Monday against the House of Culture, a building used for cultural events since Soviet times. In wartime, the building’s kitchens were used to prepare food for the needy, but city officials had also used it as a temporary office, possibly a reason for the attack.
Kharkiv’s regional administrator, Oleh Synyehubov, said three people were killed while sheltering in the basement and more were injured. Among the dead was a volunteer cook, residents said. His brother and several other people survived.
Two women were also killed, one of whom had helped the cook, said a resident who only used his first name, Maksim, on guard against possible retaliation. They made an Uzbek rice dish, plov, for the people around.
“She was just cleaning vegetables,” Maksim said.
Chuhuiv has been increasingly bombed in recent days, as has the city of Kharkov and other towns and cities in the province. Soldiers guarding the entrances to the city on Sunday said artillery attacks had been constant for much of the day, hitting an industrial area around the train station.
The Russians “cover a lot of places like this, including all the schools,” Maksim said. “They’re doing it to make people leave.”
The people got the message and the city was mostly empty, he said. He was also preparing to leave, he said. He and his family had plans to immigrate to Canada.
“There’s nothing left here,” he said.
Michael Schwirtz reported from Mykolaiv, Ukraine, Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London. Reporting contributed by: Carlotta Gallo and Kamila Hrabchuk from Chuhuiv, Ukraine, Marc Santora from London and Alan Yuhas From New York.