Laden with 26,000 tonnes of maize, the Razoni, a Sierra Leone-registered freighter, left the Ukrainian port of Odessa on August 1. The transit, Ukraine’s first maritime export since Russia’s invasion in February, was made possible by an agreement reached between the two countries in July. “I understand what war is,” the ship’s Syrian captain, Mohammad Abdoh, told Ukrainian officials days earlier, “and I’m ready to go.” The Razoni headed for Lebanon. At least ten other ships, among the dozens stuck in Ukrainian ports since the start of the war, are loaded and ready to follow.
But concerns remain. On July 23, just a day after UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan brokered the deal to allow Ukrainian grain exports to resume, Russia bombed the port of Odessa. A few days later, a Russian missile killed Oleksiy Vadaturskyi, the head of one of Ukraine’s biggest grain exporters, and his wife, in Mykolaiv, another port city. An adviser to Volodymyr Zelensky, the country’s president, said Vadaturskyi was deliberately targeted.
Under the export program, cargo ships sailing to and from Ukraine will pass through a safe corridor in the Black Sea. The process will be administered by a “Joint Coordination Center” (JCC) in Istanbul, made up of representatives from Ukraine and Russia as well as Turkey and the UN. They will oversee transit routes and inspect ships bound for Odessa to ensure they are not carrying any weapons.
When the Russian invasion began, the Ukrainian army dropped mines in its own waters to prevent an amphibious assault. But it has already cleared enough to create a corridor for merchant ships. This was made possible by a breakthrough in late June, when Ukraine regained control of Snake Island from the Russian occupiers. This made it easier for the Ukrainian Navy to defend the country’s southwest coast.
Ships stuck in Ukrainian ports since the start of the war will be the first to leave. It is unclear whether grain traders have enough faith in the deal to send new ships to Ukraine. Three ships are expected to reach Ukraine by mid-August, said Oleksandra Azarkhina, the country’s deputy infrastructure minister. Many more could follow if the first shipments go smoothly. “My phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” said a UN official involved in the talks. “Shipping companies are just as excited and anxious.” Some intangible barriers are being removed. Ascot and Marsh, a pair of London-based insurance companies, recently announced the creation of a “sea freight and war facility” which will insure vessels using the grain corridor for up to $50 million.
Many potential exporters, however, remain on the fence. Buyers may be willing to pay the high premiums needed to insure the vessels, costs that will inevitably be passed on to Ukrainian farmers in the form of lower prices for their grain. But they still worry about the potential for disruption. “Even if you find a ship and a seller, who guarantees that the loading takes place, and who pays if it does not?” asks a seasoned grain trader. “It will take time before people believe this is a feasible option.”
Any Russian aggression would sabotage the agreement. “It’s not even Ukraine that will decide,” says Ms. Azarkhina. “No company would want to send ships. It would be game over. It would also be a disaster for Ukrainian farmers. Ukraine needs to quickly export 20 million tons of grain currently in storage to make room for up to 60 million from the upcoming harvest. Unless exports resume on a large scale, much of the new crop could rot. This, in turn, would have other adverse effects. “If shipments don’t start, sowing for next year’s harvest won’t start,” says Anatoliy Haivoronsky, a grain producer from Dnipro. “It would spell bankruptcy for the industry.”
Ukraine was able to export 2.5 million tonnes of grains and oilseeds per month through alternative routes, via road, rail and barges on the Danube, said Mykola Solskyi, Minister of Agriculture. But this is not enough to compensate for the closure of its ports on the Black Sea. It recently took Mr. Haivoronsky three weeks to send 64 tonnes of maize to Greece by truck. “At this rate,” he says, “it would take me two or three years to sell my stock.”
Russian security guarantees may not be worth the paper they are written on. But Ukrainians, and many of the 50 million people around the world who the UN says are on the brink of starvation, have no choice but to hope. “We can agree on everything, we can make all the arrangements”, says Mr. Solskyi, “but everything depends on the war”. ■