ODESA, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited a Black Sea port Friday as crews prepared terminals to export grain trapped by Russia’s five-month-old war, work that was inching forward a week after a deal was struck to allow critical food supplies to flow to millions of impoverished people facing hunger worldwide.
“The first vessel, the first ship is being loaded since the beginning of the war,” Zelensky said at a port in the Odesa region.
He stated that however the withdrawal of wheat and other grains would begin with several loaded ships, which could not be left Ukrainian ports due to Russia’s invading force at the end February. The Ukraine is an important global exporter of sunflower oil, wheat, barley and corn. This has led to increased food prices and political instability, as well as pushed more people into poverty in countries already struggling.
Ukraine’s military is committed to the safety of ships, Zelensky said, adding that “it is important for us that Ukraine remains the guarantor of global food security.”
His unannounced visit to the port is part of a broader push by Ukraine to show the world that it is nearly ready to export millions of tons of grains after last week’s breakthrough agreements, which were brokered by Turkey and the United Nations and signed separately by Ukraine and Russia.
Both sides reached an agreement to allow the safe passage of wheat, other grains and fertilizer from Russia through three Ukrainian ports via the Black Sea.
But a Russian missile strike on Odesa hours after signing the deal has thrown Moscow’s commitment into question and raised new concerns about the safety of shipping crews, who also have to navigate waters strewn with explosive mines.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday emphasized the importance of maintaining a “link between taking grain out of Ukrainian ports and unblocking direct or indirect restrictions on the export of our grain, fertilizers and other goods to global markets.”
Security concerns and the complexity of the agreements caused a cautious, slow start. No grains have yet been exported from Ukrainian ports. The sides are facing a ticking clock—the deal is only good for 120 days.
In the coming four months, we aim to transport around 20,000,000 tons of grain from the three Ukrainian shipping ports which have been closed since the February 24th invasion. This allows for approximately four to five large bulk carriers to move grain daily from ports to the millions of hungry people living in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Ukrainian farmers are facing a shortage of food storage due to the new harvest and need to move wheat and other foods out.
Learn more The Course of History is Being Rewritten by Ukrainian Wheat
“We are ready,” Ukraine’s minister of infrastructure, Oleksandr Kubrakov, told reporters at the port of Odesa on Friday.
However, he stated that Ukraine will wait for confirmation from the U.N. on safe routes to navigate the oceans. He said that a vessel at Chernomorsk was currently being loaded with grain.
Martin Griffiths, the U.N. official who mediated the deals, cautioned that work was still being done to finalize the exact coordinates of the safest routes, saying this must be “absolutely nailed down.”
Lloyd’s List, a global publisher of shipping news, noted Friday that while U.N. officials are pushing for the initial voyage this week to show progress in the deal, continued uncertainty on key details will likely prevent an immediate ramping-up of shipments.
“Until those logistical issues and detailed outlines of safeguarding procedures are disseminated, charters will not be agreed and insurers will not be underwriting shipments,” wrote Bridget Diakun and Richard Meade of Lloyd’s List.
The U.N. agencies like the World Food Program already have arrangements made to charter most of the grain in order to meet urgent humanitarian requirements.
Shipping companies are not rush to sign the deal, as explosive mines have been drifting into the water. Ship owners have begun to assess the risk and are still unsure how it will turn out.
The U.N., Turkey, and Ukraine are working together to implement the agreement signed last week. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told Al Jazeera on Thursday that “the deal has started in practice” and that the first ship leaving Ukraine with grains is expected to depart “very soon.”
Mevlut Cavusoglu the Turkish Foreign Minister, expressed similar optimism at a press briefing. She described the new deal as a major step forward in the conflict between warring sides.
“This is not just a step being taken to lift the hurdles in front of the export of food. If implemented successfully, it will be a serious confidence-building measure for both sides,” he said.
The deal stipulates that Russia and Ukraine will provide “maximum assurances” for ships that brave the journey through the Black Sea to the Ukrainian ports of Odesa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny.
For ships heading to Ukraine’s three ports, smaller Ukrainian pilot boats will guide the vessels through approved corridors. A Joint Coordination Center will oversee the entire operation in Istanbul, staffed with officials from Turkey, Russia and Turkey.
After ships arrive in port, they are loaded with many thousands of tons worth of grains. Then they return to Bosphorus Strait to be boarded and checked for weapons. It is likely that there will be inspections of ships heading for Ukraine.
This report was contributed by Aya Batrawy, United Arab Emirates, and Suzan Fraser, Ankara, Turkey, Associated Press. Edith M. Lederer, United Nations, also contributed.
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