Ukraine made its first grain shipment Monday since Russia invaded Europe's breadbasket more than five months ago.
The Razoni, a Sierra Leone-flagged vessel loaded with 26,527 tons of corn, left Ukraine early Monday for Lebanon, according to the United Nations. The shipment marks a small but crucial first step toward unlocking millions of tons of stalled crop exports and boosting global food supplies.
Ukraine Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said 16 other ships in the greater Odesa region now await their turn to sail.
Russian and Ukrainian officials penned agreements July 22 in Istanbul with Turkey and the U.N., clearing the way for Ukraine to export 22 million tons of grain and other agricultural products stalled in Black Sea ports following the Feb. 24 invasion.
A Russian missile attack on Odesa's sea port just hours after making the deal, however, raised immediate questions about Russia's commitment. As part of the agreements, safe corridors through the mined waters outside Ukraine's ports were established.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov hailed the ship's Monday departure as "very positive," saying it would help test the "efficiency of the mechanisms that were agreed to during the talks in Istanbul."
Ukraine is one of the biggest grain and vegetable-oil suppliers, and the loss of exports via its Black Sea ports has shaken the food trade and raised the threat of a global food crisis.
"Ensuring that existing grain and foodstuffs can move to global markets is a humanitarian imperative," a spokesman for UN Secretary General António Guterres said in a statement. "The secretary general hopes that this will be the first of many commercial ships moving in accordance with the initiative."
Scores of ships remain stuck in the ports dotted along the Black Sea and are expected to begin moving out in "caravans" if all goes well. However, shipowners have to secure insurance for cargoes and vessels and also find enough crew members to sail them.
Under the July 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 expected to dock early Wednesday in Istanbul, where teams of Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and U.N. officials were set to board it for inspection.
Despite the new deal, some 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.
CORN AND HOPE
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.
In an interview with Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar warned that the global food crisis threatens to trigger "a serious wave of migration from Africa to Europe and to Turkey."
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 mostly imports wheat from Ukraine but also buys its corn to make cooking oil and produce 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.
Analysts have warned that continued 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, Russia announced sanctions against dozens of British public figures, accusing them of supporting the "demonization" and international isolation of Moscow.
The 39 politicians, businesspeople and journalists barred from entering Russia include former Prime Minister David Cameron, senior government ministers, and columnists for newspapers including The Times and The Guardian.
OTHER EXPORT WOES
Ukraine has been shipping some volumes of grain by road and rail while the ports remained closed, but in much smaller volumes than it can export by sea.
The pace of exports will be important as Ukraine's farmers have warned they are running out of space to store crops, which could have a negative effect on how much grain is sown for next year's harvest.
Ukraine has also accused Russia of stealing grain from occupied areas of the country and exporting it. Lebanon seized a ship loaded with barley and wheat flour while it determines whether the cargo may have been stolen from Ukraine, Public Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat said.
Grain shipments from Russian-occupied Crimea have surged since the invasion, indicating that Ukrainian grain is being exported via sanctioned ports there, according to analysts. Russia denies stealing grain.
The World Food Programme is planning to purchase, load and ship an initial 30,000 tons of wheat out of Ukraine on a UN-chartered vessel, with more details expected in the coming days, the UN said.
Information for this article was contributed by Susie Blann and Suzan Fraser of The Associated Press, and Ugur Yilmaz, Aliaksandr Kudrytski, Taylan Bilgic, Abdel Latif Wahba and Áine Quinn of Bloomberg News.