The first Ukrainian grain ship leaves Odesa after months of Russian blockade

A large freight vessel in port
The bulk carrier M/V Razoni leaves Ukraine’s port of Odesa on Monday. (Photo by Oleksandr Gimanov/AFP via Getty Images)

ODESA, Ukraine – A cargo ship loaded with 26,000 tons of Ukrainian corn left the country’s largest port Monday for the first time since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24.

The milestone comes after the United Nations and Turkey signed agreements with Russia and Ukraine on July 22 to re-open Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and resume exports of grain, cooking oil and fertilizer. The U.N. had pushed for a deal to address a growing global food shortage.

Ukraine’s Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov filmed the ship, the Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni, as it departed and declared the U.N. deal “a great success for providing global food security.” He wrote on Facebook that Ukrainian ports would be working at full capacity in a few weeks.

A woman gesticulating as she speaks from behind a desk
Alla Stoyanova, Odesa’s agriculture chief, says Ukraine’s agricultural exports are even more important for its economy as a result of the war. (Photo by Joanna Kakissis/NPR)

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov also noted the ship’s departure, calling it “very positive.” Russia signed a separate agreement with Turkey so it could export its grain and fertilizer, which remain grounded because of Western sanctions on banking and transportation.

The Ukrainians need this deal to work to keep their economy from falling apart.

“Ukraine used to earn 45 percent of its general income from the agriculture sector,” Alla Stoyanova, the Odesa region’s agriculture chief, told NPR. “Since the Russian invasion, practically every other sector has crumbled. So agricultural exports are now our money, our economy, our life.”

A row of metal grain silos
Russia’s war has cut off Ukrainian grain exports and exacerbated a global food crisis. (Photo by Joanna Kakissis/NPR)

Keeping up the pace of exports is crucial. Farmers continue to work during the war, sometimes donning helmets and bulletproof vests while working in their fields. They are running out of space to store crops. They can’t afford to plant next year’s crop.

Viacheslav Nevmerzhytskiy, who farms wheat and sunflowers near the port of Pivdennyi, not far from Odesa, says he worries that the Russians might even bomb the ships carrying Ukrainian products — and then try to pin it on Ukraine.

“I don’t see this shipping corridor lasting into the new year unless there are big security guarantees,” he says, like NATO guarding the ports.

A man stands in a field of sunflowers up to his waist
Farmer Viacheslav Nevmerzhytskiy says he has doubts about how long the shipping corridor will last. (Photo by Joanna Kakissis/NPR)

Russia has repeatedly shelled the Odesa port and region since the grain export deals were signed. The Ukrainian military, meanwhile, is using specialists to remove undersea mines near the ship corridors.

Security is already tight at Ukrainian ports, which are now run by the military.

Dmytro Barinov, deputy head of Ukraine’s Seaport Authority, says at least 68 vessels have been stuck in the country’s Black Sea ports since the Russian invasion. About half are loaded with grain.

“Some of them continue to load,” he says. “They’re waiting (for) these corridors to work, and they can go out, perhaps in a kind of caravan on the sea.”

Hanna Palamarenko and Pavel Zilinskiy contributed reporting from Odesa.

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