MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — A ship loaded with corn on Monday became the first cargo ship to leave Ukraine in more than five months of war, breaking through Russia’s naval blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports and raising hopes that desperately needed food will soon reach nations afflicted by shortages and soaring prices.
The ship’s voyage was the culmination of months of negotiations and an international campaign to get grain out of Ukraine, one of the world’s pre-war breadbaskets. Russia’s invasion and blockade, along with Western sanctions hampering Russian exports and factors such as drought and climate change, have sharply reduced the world’s grain supply, threatening famine for dozens of million people, especially in the Middle East and Africa.
Mediators from the United Nations and Turkey, which shares the Black Sea coast with Russia and Ukraine, oversaw months of talks in Istanbul. Although talks seemed hopelessly bogged down for weeks, in late July the parties struck a deal to release more than 20 million tonnes of grain.
The agreement could easily fall apart: the ship, the Razoni, is crossing a war zone, risking an attack or an accident, and a breach of trust or a disagreement between the inspectors and the heads of the multinational operation could again freeze ships in ports.
But if the journey that started on Monday goes well, it could be an important step towards easing shortages and lowering prices, even if it alone cannot address the causes of a global hunger crisis. imminent.
“Ensuring that cereals, fertilizers and other food products are available at reasonable prices for developing countries is a humanitarian imperative,” António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said on Monday. “People on the brink of starvation need these deals to work, to survive.”
With the stakes so high and intense distrust of the West and Ukraine that Russia would really let the cargo go port, the ship’s departure from Odessa was closely watched on Monday.
Manned mainly by Syrian sailors, the Razoni was driven out of port by a tug. Carrying 26,000 tons of corn, the ship and tug first sailed over sea mines, placed by Ukraine to prevent any amphibious assault from Russia, and then passed through the Russian Navy vessels which are in large control left the Black Sea and granted safe passage.
The ship was due to stop in Turkish waters for inspection by a joint team from Turkey, the United Nations, Ukraine and Russia on Tuesday before continuing to the Lebanese port of Tripoli.
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Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kurbakov said the Razoni left around 9:30 a.m. local time. There are 16 other ships waiting to leave Odessa in the coming days, he said.
If successful, the grain export deal could have significant economic consequences for Ukraine. The country’s agriculture minister, Mykola Solskyi, said last week that there was $10 billion worth of grain stored in Ukraine and the upcoming harvest would add another $20 billion to that amount. Ukraine is one of the main exporters of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil.
Alongside the deal on Ukrainian goods, another deal would allow Russia to export grain and fertilizer, further easing the immense pressure on markets and farmers, especially in developing countries. Russia, whose exports have been limited by Western sanctions, is a major fertilizer supplier and, together with Ukraine, provides more than a quarter of the world’s wheat.
But while Razoni’s crossing of the Black Sea gave hope for some cooperation between the fighters, fighting intensified on several fronts in Ukraine.
Preparing for a counter-offensive in the southern region of Kherson, Ukraine used long-range precision weapons, recently supplied by the West, to disrupt Russian supply lines and logistics. Ukrainian forces attacked Russian command and control centers, hit supply routes, attempted to isolate Russian forces in pockets, and drafted Ukrainian saboteurs behind enemy lines.
On Monday, Ukrainian officials said that using US-supplied rocket artillery, their forces blew up a Russian train carrying troops and equipment to reinforce positions in southern Ukraine, killing dozens of soldiers and destroying many wagons.
“According to intelligence data, all drivers and engineers of the Russian Railways Company, who were transporting military goods from Crimea to the Kherson region, were killed,” Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the ministry, said Monday morning. inside.
Although his claims could not be independently verified, video of an explosion and satellite images of the aftermath provided evidence that the Ukrainians had hit a Russian train along one of the two main railway lines linking Crimea to southern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s military also said on Monday it had destroyed at least 15 ammunition depots in the south in recent weeks, affecting supplies enough to force Russia to use surface-to-air missiles to strike ground targets. Western analysts have said that as the war continues, Russia is relying more on imprecise or otherwise designed munitions to bomb Ukrainian cities, causing indiscriminate damage – and possibly signaling – be that it lacks the most advanced precision. weapons.
The Pentagon said last week that Ukraine was using Western weapons to increasing effect and becoming highly adept at attacking Russian command and control centers and destroying large amounts of Russian equipment. On Monday, the Biden administration announced a new round of support for Ukraine: $550 million in military aid, including more ammunition for 155 millimeter howitzer artillery pieces and rocket systems. High Mobility Artillery, or HIMARS, that the United States has already provided.
But for all its slow or faltering progress in the war, Russia retains vast advantages in the size of its arsenal, and its military has shown a willingness and ability to strike across the country, even as it focuses on gain. of land in eastern Ukraine. There, Russia covered town after town with overwhelming artillery fire as it tried to reposition ground forces to push forward.
The strategy slowly gave Russia control of the eastern province of Luhansk, leaving many towns and villages in ruins. Russian forces have since moved to reinforce the south and push into another eastern province, Donetsk.
“Their tactics remain much the same as during the hostilities in the Luhansk region,” Serhiy Haidai, head of Ukraine’s Luhansk regional government, said on Monday.
He said the Russians were trying daily to mount an offensive on the town of Bakhmut, in Donetsk, but had so far failed to break through the main Ukrainian defensive lines.
Russian forces also continued to shell residential and military areas in and around the northeastern city of Kharkiv, pressuring Ukraine not to move too many of its defenses from there.
In Chuhuiv, in the Kharkiv region and just 10 miles from Russian lines, residents were still recovering Monday from last week’s missile strikes on the House of Culture, a building used since Soviet times for cultural events. During wartime, the building’s kitchens were used to prepare food for the needy, but members of the city government also used it as a temporary office, possibly a reason for the attack.
The missiles killed three people sheltering in the basement and injured several others, according to Oleh Synyehubov, the Kharkiv regional administrator. A volunteer cook was among the dead, residents said. His brother and several other people survived.
Two women were also killed, one of whom was helping the cook, said a resident who gave only his first name, Maksim, wary of possible reprisals. They were preparing an Uzbek rice dish, plov, for people in the neighborhood.
“She was just cleaning vegetables,” Maksim said.
Chuhuiv has come under increasing bombardment in recent days, as has the city of Kharkiv and other villages and towns in the province. Soldiers guarding the outskirts of the town on Sunday said artillery strikes had been steady for much of the day, hitting an industrial area around the station.
The Russians “hit a lot of places like this, all the schools too,” Maksim said. “They do it to make people leave.”
People understood the message and the city was largely empty, he said. He was getting ready to leave too, he said. He and his family intended to emigrate to Canada.
“There’s nothing left here,” he said.
Michael Schwirtz reported from Mykolaiv, Ukraine, Matina Stevis-Gridneff of Brussels and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London. The report was provided by Carlotta Gall and Kamila Hrabchuk from Chuhuiv, Ukraine, Marc Santora of London and Alan Yuhas from New York.