April 20, 2024

First Cargo Ships Arrive in Ukraine Since Russia Ended a Grain Deal

The first cargo vessels to arrive at a Ukrainian port since Russia terminated a deal under which Kyiv was able to export food crops across the Black Sea were moored on Sunday in Chornomorsk, offering early signs of hope that Ukraine could open an alternative route for grain shipments.

Ukraine’s grain exports provide a vital source of foreign exchange and are also important for global food markets, particularly for countries in Africa and the Middle East that are facing hunger. Russia has imposed a de facto blockade on Ukrainian cargo ships since July, when the Kremlin terminated an agreement that had allowed Kyiv to export grain by sea, a deal that was seen as essential to keeping the world’s food prices stable.

But establishing a corridor secure enough for a regular flow of cargo vessels to sail from Ukraine’s seaports is risky, not least because the Black Sea has become an increasingly critical theater in the war as Ukraine contests Russia’s naval dominance.

The bulk carrier Aroyat and the cargo vessel Resilient Africa are expected to be loaded with about 22,000 tons of wheat destined for countries in Africa and Asia, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, said Saturday in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. Data from the Marine Traffic website showed the vessels moored in Chornomorsk on Sunday morning.

“First civilian vessels use the temporary corridor to reach Ukrainian ports,” Mr. Kubrakov said. “The vessels fly the flags of Palau, and their crew consists of citizens of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Egypt and Ukraine.” It was not clear when the ships would leave Chornomorsk.

Both ships hugged the coast once they entered Ukrainian waters on Saturday, according to data from the Marine Traffic website. Resilient Africa had set off from the Romanian port of Constanta, while Aroyat had departed from a port in Turkey.

Underlining the risks, Russia launched a drone and missile attack early Sunday on the Black Sea port of Odesa, only a few miles north from Chornomorsk, hitting an agriculture facility in the region, according to Ukraine’s Air Force.

Ukrainian forces intercepted six drones and six missiles, the air force said in a post on the Telegram messaging app. The claims could not be independently verified.

Russia has repeatedly launched missiles and drones at grain facilities and the port of Odesa since it ended the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations that for a year had established a corridor through which Ukraine could ship wheat, barley and other crops.

Last week, Ukraine fired 10 cruise missiles and launched sea drones at the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, which is in the occupied Crimean port city of Sevastopol. The attack badly damaged two naval vessels and started a fire at a shipyard, according to officials on both sides.

In addition to abrogating the grain deal, Russia said in July that it would consider any ship sailing into a Ukrainian port as potentially carrying military cargo, in a clear warning to civilian shipping. Russia has also struck Ukraine’s Danube River ports at Izmail and Reni, which are increasingly used as an alternative to the main ports along the Black Sea.

And a month ago, a Russian patrol vessel fired warning shots at a civilian vessel on the Black Sea and then boarded it to conduct an inspection.

Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, three of the six countries that border the Black Sea, are NATO members, a fact that would most likely act as a deterrent to any country seeking to launch an attack on a ship in its waters. Kyiv, however, does not benefit from the alliance’s protective umbrella, though it is pressing for membership, which President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine sees as a major strategic objective.

Talks to restore the grain deal are yet to bear fruit and, in the interim, Ukraine has sought a unilateral means of facilitating its exports. Agriculture experts say that, while Ukraine has been able to increase the volume of goods it transports through the Danube River ports, the process is not without risks and is more expensive, thus weakening a vital sector of Ukraine’s economy.

Last month, a civilian cargo ship that had been stuck in Odesa since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 became the first to venture out of the port and sail through the Black Sea since Moscow pulled out of the grain deal. The ship used a corridor in Ukrainian territorial waters established by Ukraine’s Ministry of Infrastructure for civilian vessels, as part of Kyiv’s efforts to resume exports of grain and other goods.

But the fighting in the Black Sea has also escalated in the three months since Ukraine launched a counteroffensive to reclaim territory lost to Russia in the south and east. That assault is yet to achieve a decisive breakthrough of Russian defenses, but Ukraine has also escalated its drone attacks on Russian soil and on the occupied region of Crimea.

Russia said on Sunday that it had destroyed a wave of Ukrainian drones fired at targets in Crimea and in the Moscow region. In the early hours of Sunday, Russian air defenses shot down four drones over the northwestern and eastern coasts of Crimea, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Telegram.

Around the same time, it said in separate posts, Ukrainian drones were intercepted in the Domodedovo and Istrinsky districts of the Moscow region. A third attack on Moscow, in the Ramenesky region, was also foiled, according to the city’s mayor, Sergei S. Sobyanin. The claims could not be independently verified. There were no immediate reports of casualties, and there was no immediate comment from Ukraine.

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