If all goes to plan, a ship captain will weigh anchor at a wharf in Ukraine’s Odesa region in the coming days and steer a cargo vessel loaded with grain through the port before heading gingerly out into the Black Sea. A government vessel will lead the ship through a maze of mines and a rescue boat will follow.
Many eyes will be tracking the voyage. It would be the first since the signing of a deal last Friday to allow a resumption of Ukraine’s grain exports, which have been blocked since Russia’s invasion five months ago by Moscow’s dominance in the Black Sea and Kyiv’s decision to mine its southern ports to forestall a Russian amphibious assault.
Ukraine and Russia together supply more than a quarter of the world’s wheat, and Russia is also a major supplier of fertilizer. Ukraine is also a leading exporter of barley, corn and sunflower.
Uncertainty has clouded the deal’s implementation, not least because of a Russian missile strike on the port of Odesa the day after it was signed. The strike damaged infrastructure but did not damage export capacity.
“The mechanism for how exactly the shipments could be carried out safely has yet to be worked out,” said Nataliya Humenyuk, spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military’s southern command, on Tuesday.
But some of the details are coming into focus. For instance, Ukrainian captains plan to avoid mines by navigating safe passages mapped by the Ukrainian Navy.
The Russian Navy will allow a route to Turkish ports and it has demanded that, once the cargo is unloaded, the ships are inspected before they return to Ukraine to ensure they carry no weapons. Teams from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the U.N. will jointly carry out the inspections, and a joint command center will be set up in Istanbul to monitor the operation.
The agreement will last 120 days, but it could be renewed on a rolling basis.
Ukrainian officials say the first vessel will leave from Chornomorsk, a port southwest of Odesa, followed by a ship from Odesa itself and then another from Pivdennyi, which is the port farthest east.
“Demining will be necessary in that corridor,” said Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, at a news conference on Monday. He added: “It was crucial for us that in our territorial waters and in our ports everything should be under Ukrainian control.”
A resumption of exports is crucial to easing global grain prices and bringing relief to countries facing hunger because of the blockage.
But Ukraine’s farmers also need trade to start again quickly. Ukraine’s agriculture minister, Mykola Solskyi, said that there were $10 billion worth of grain stored in Ukraine and the incoming harvest would add a further $20 billion to that amount.
“Our grain would already be at the ports if there were very clear guarantees,” said Viktor Skorenko, who runs a grain storage facility near the capital, Kyiv. “The sea is the cheapest and fastest way of exporting, but unfortunately it is not safe yet.”