The first shipment of Ukrainian grain set out from the port of Odesa on Monday morning under a landmark deal with Russia, which has been blockading Ukrainian ports since February. The vessel, carrying 26,000 tons of corn, is headed through heavily mined waters to reach the port of Tripoli in Lebanon.
Ukraine, the world’s fourth-largest grain exporter, has reportedly stored 30 million tons of grain that, until now, they have been unable to export due to the fierce war with Russia. This first shipment has sparked a glimmer of hope amidst a growing global food crisis, partially fueled by the Russian blockade.
Under the new deal, Russia has agreed not to target ports while shipments are in transit.
While Russian forces could still pose a threat to the grain vessel, the Ukrainian ship, the Razoni, faces another danger: sea mines scattered throughout the Black Sea.
Both Russia and Ukraine have dropped hundreds of mines in the Black Sea, posing a serious threat to the commercial ships trying to make the journey from Odesa to Tripoli. Nevertheless, the Razoni has set sail, with the help of naval vessels that will help guide the ship safely through the heavily mined waters.
A Ukrainian foreign ministry official reported that 372 sea mines laid by Russia were of the “R-421-75” type, which are not used by Ukraine’s navy.
Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, posted a statement on Facebook, explaining that the Razoni will move along a safe corridor that has been established by the U.N. and Turkey, and observed by Russia’s Navy.
Although precautions have been taken, trust in Russia remains low after Russia launched two missiles at the Odesa port less than 24 hours after the initial deal was announced that they would leave the port alone and allow the cargo ships to safely embark on their journey.
An engineer aboard the Razoni, Abdullah Jendi, expressed concern for the dangers posed by sea mines, saying, “We hope that nothing will happen and that we will not commit any mistake. To be honest, I am scared from the fact that there are naval mines. This is the only thing that I fear during this trip, as for the other things, we are used to them as sailors.”
While the United Nations is optimistic about the grain deal, hoping that many more grain-carrying ships will depart from Ukraine and “bring much-needed stability and relief to global food security especially in the most fragile humanitarian contexts.”
There remains widespread skepticism that the Russians will hold out their end of the deal after the first ship’s departure.
Odesa MP Oleksiy Goncharenko fears that Russia will not allow the departure of additional shipping vessels, saying, “We see these awful missile attacks against Odesa in the last days – that is just their attempts to increase the risks for ship owners, for crew, not to come to Odesa.”
Other analysts have similarly warned that the continued fighting may threaten the grain deal. Volodymyr Sidenko, an expert with the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center think-tank, believes that “the danger remains.” Sidenko said, “The Odesa region has faced constant shelling and only regular supplies could prove the viability of the agreements signed.”
Sidenko also warned that the world should temper their expectations regarding how much this first shipment will impact the growing global food crisis. “The departure of the first vessel doesn’t solve the food crisis, it’s just the first step that could also be the last if Russia decides to continue attacks in the south,” he said.