The first ship carrying grain from Ukraine left a port in Odesa Monday, after months of Russian blockade helped fuel a mounting global food crisis.
The breakthrough follows a United Nations-backed deal between Kyiv and Moscow last month and while intense fighting continues in the east and the south. The departure of the first shipment will raise hopes that the impact of the war — now five months old — might be eased for millions facing hunger and poverty across the world, though doubts over Russia’s commitment to any deal will continue.
A vessel carrying 26,000 tons of corn set sail from the port in the country’s south, beginning its journey through heavily mined waters beyond the Black Sea and toward Lebanon’s Tripoli, according to a U.N.-led monitoring center.
Ahead of its voyage, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and ambassadors from the Group of Seven nations visited the port last week where they observed ships being loaded with grain.
“We are ready to export Ukrainian grain. We are waiting for signals from our partners about the start of transportation,” he said in a post on his Telegram channel, alongside pictures of the vessel.
“It is important for us to remain the guarantor of global food security,” he added. While someone takes the lives of other countries while blocking the Black Sea, we allow them to survive.”
One of the world’s biggest grain exporters, Ukraine is known as “Europe’s bread basket” and supplies an average of 45 million tons of wheat globally annually, according to the U.N.
But the Russian invasion blocked shipments, sending the price of food soaring and the U.N. warned that shortages could push some countries to the edge of famine. Western leaders accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of using food as a weapon.
Hopes were raised last month when the two sides struck a deal in the Turkish capital of Istanbul to end the blockade and allow grain to be shipped. Brokered by the U.N. and Turkey, the deal allowed shipments of commercial food exports to resume out of three key Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea: Odesa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny.
But less than 24 hours after the deal was signed, Russian missiles struck Odesa’s port Saturday. Zelenskyy slammed the attack, saying it proved Russia couldn’t be trusted to honor its international agreements.
But last Wednesday, the U.N. inaugurated a joint coordination center to oversee the implementation of the deal. Hosted in Istanbul, the center will be run by representatives from Turkey, Ukraine and Russia.
“I am hopeful that their swift collective action will translate quickly and directly into much-needed relief for the most vulnerable food insecure people around the world,” U.N. Humanitarian Affairs Coordinator Martin Griffiths said at the center’s launch.
The center will monitor the movement of commercial vessels carrying grain and related food commodities out of the Black Sea to ensure both sides comply with the agreement.
Boats carrying commercial food exports will be guided out of the Black Sea by Ukrainian pilot vessels to avoid sea mines, according to the U.N.
The center will also coordinate the inspection of the loading of grain at the three ports, as well as vessels entering the ports along the agreed shipping route.