ODESSA, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited a Black Sea port Friday as crews prepared terminals to export grain caught up in Russia’s five-month war, work moving forward a week after an agreement was reached to allow critical foods. supplies for millions of impoverished people facing hunger around the world.
“The first ship, the first ship is being loaded since the beginning of the war,” Zelenskyy, wearing his signature olive T-shirt, told reporters as he stood next to a Turkish-flagged ship in the port of Chernomorsk in the Odesa region.
He said, however, that the departure of wheat and other grains will begin with several ships that were already loaded but were unable to leave Ukrainian ports after Russia invaded in late February.
Ukraine is a key global exporter of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil, and the loss of these supplies has raised global food prices, threatened political instability and helped push more people into poverty and hunger in already vulnerable countries.
The Ukrainian military is committed to the safety of ships, Zelenskyy said, adding that “it is important for us that Ukraine remains the guarantor of world food security.”
His unannounced visit to the port is part of a wider push by Ukraine to show the world it is almost ready to export millions of tonnes of grains after last week’s breakthrough deals, which were brokered by Turkey and the United Nations and signed separately by Ukraine. and Russia
The parties agreed to facilitate the shipment of wheat and other grains from three Ukrainian ports through secure Black Sea corridors, as well as fertilizers and food from Russia.
But a Russian missile attack in Odesa hours after the deal was signed has cast doubt on Moscow’s commitment and raised new concerns about the safety of shipping crews, who must also navigate waters littered with explosive mines.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday stressed the importance of maintaining a “link between removing grain from Ukrainian ports and unlocking direct or indirect restrictions on the export of our grain, fertilizers and other goods to global markets.”
Security concerns and the complexity of the deals have led to a slow and cautious start, with no grain yet leaving Ukrainian ports. The sides face a clock: The deal is only good for 120 days.
The goal over the next four months is to get about 20 million tons of grain from three Ukrainian seaports blocked since the February 24 invasion. This provides time for about four or five large bulk carriers per day to transport grain from ports to millions of people in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, who are already facing food shortages and, in some cases, the hunger
Getting the grain out is also critical for Ukraine’s farmers, who are running out of storage capacity amid a new crop.
“We are ready,” Ukraine’s Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov told reporters at the port of Odesa on Friday.
But he said Ukraine is waiting for the UN to confirm the safe passages the ships will use. Meanwhile, a ship in the port of Chernomorsk was being loaded with grain, he said.
Martin Griffiths, the UN official who brokered the deals, warned that work was still underway to finalize the exact coordinates of the safest routes, saying it “absolutely” had to be fleshed out.
Lloyd’s List, a global publisher of shipping news, noted that while UN officials are pushing for the initial voyage this week to show progress on the deal, continued uncertainty over key details will likely prevent a immediate increase in shipments.
“Until these logistical issues and detailed outlines of safeguarding procedures are aired, charters will not be agreed and insurers will not underwrite the shipments,” wrote Lloyd’s List’s Bridget Diakun and Richard Meade.
They note, however, that United Nations agencies, such as the World Food Program, have already agreed to lease much of the grain for urgent humanitarian needs.
Shipping companies have not rushed since the deal was signed a week ago because explosive mines are drifting in the waters, shipowners are assessing the risks and many still have questions about how the deal will play out.
Ukraine, Turkey and the UN are trying to show that they are acting on the agreement. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told Al Jazeera on Thursday that “the deal has started in practice” and that the first ship to leave Ukraine with grain is expected to leave “very soon”.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressed similar optimism at a news conference, framing the deal as an important step forward between the warring parties.
“This is not just a step taken to remove obstacles to the export of food. If implemented successfully, it will be a serious confidence-building measure for both parties,” he said.
The agreement stipulates that Russia and Ukraine provide “maximum guarantees” for ships facing the journey to the Ukrainian ports of Odesa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny.
Smaller Ukrainian pilot boats will guide the ships through the approved corridors. The entire operation will be overseen by a Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul made up of officials from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations.
Once the ships arrive in port, they will be loaded with grain before returning to the Bosphorus Strait, where they will embark to be inspected for weapons. There will likely also be inspections for ships embarking in Ukraine.
Aya Batrawy, Associated Press editor, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey; and Edith M. Lederer of the United Nations contributed to this report.