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Time for Moderate Optimism – First Ship Full of Corn Leaves Ukraine by Lili Zemplényi

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Time for Moderate Optimism – First Ship Full of Corn Leaves Ukraine

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On Monday morning the first ship carrying Ukrainian grain left from Odesa in southern Ukraine for Turkey. This is the first ship to leave Ukraine under last month’s landmark deal with Russia. The ship is flying under the flag of Sierra Leone. The vessel, named Razoni, which is carrying 26,000 tonnes of corn, is expected to dock at the port of Tripoli in Lebanon in about four days. The Razoni was the first cargo ship to leave Ukraine under the new deal, but many more ships are expected to start carrying shipments from Ukraine to the rest of the world in the near future.

Russia has been blocking Ukrainian ports since February, but last month Moscow and Kyiv agreed on Russia allowing shipments to resume. Hopes are high regarding the deal, with many believing that Ukrainian grain will help alleviate the global shortage of food and decrease the price of grain worldwide. Since Ukraine is the world’s fourth largest grain exporter, many countries depend on supplies from the war-torn country.

Africa now suffers a serious food shortage, which has increased food prices by 40 per cent across the continent

Since the beginning of the war, the price of bread, cooking oil and pasta has substantially increased – a crisis that more shipment from Ukraine might address. Russia and Ukraine combined export nearly one third of the world’s wheat supply, while Ukraine alone is the source of 16 per cent of the globe’s corn supplies and 42 per cent of all sunflower oil. Due to Russia’s blockade, Africa now suffers a serious food shortage, which has increased food prices by 40 per cent across the continent. In Nigeria, the price of bread and pasta has doubled since the war broke out. In Yemen, flour has become 42 per cent more expensive, while in Syria the price of bread has doubled. We have written about the food crisis in more detail earlier here.

Turkey is a key player in the deal between Kyiv and Moscow – the country is expected to guide vessels through dangerous waters. As the mines that have been laid in the Black Sea since the beginning of the war pose serious danger, Turkey has offered to aid ships to navigate safely. Furthermore, Turkey has also been entrusted with the inspection of vessels to address Russian concerns of arms being smuggled out on the ships.

Some have raised the concern that while ships might be able to leave Ukraine to carry grain to the rest of the world, Russia would not let empty ships return to Odesa to be filled again. Despite the fears, Ukraine’s Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov is optimistic – he believes that Russia will allow the passage of both departing and incoming ships to Ukraine. In fact, Kyiv announced that 16 other cargo ships with 600,000 tonnes of grain are ready to leave South Ukrainian ports in the weeks to come.

Critics remind that Russia jeopardised the deal within 24 hours of reaching it – Moscow had launched two missiles directed at the Odesa port, raising suspicion and fear that it will not abide by the deal. Despite the strikes that were condemned by President Zelensky Ukraine carried on preparing for resuming grain deliveries. Nevertheless, many fear that Russia might continue to disrupt shipments with similar military activities. Moscow defended its decision to strike the port saying that it had targeted (and destroyed) a Ukrainian military vessel as well as some Harpoon anti-ship missiles that had been supplied to Ukraine from the United States. Targeting military equipment is not prohibited by the deal – the text of the agreement outlines only the ban on targeting merchant and civilian vessels and facilities that are engaged in transporting grain. While Ukraine admitted that a ship has been hit by the missiles, they disclosed no information on whether it was a merchant or a military vessel – otherwise, the port was not significantly damaged.

The extra 55 million tonnes of grain are 30 per cent less than what Ukraine normally produces

While the news about the first ship leaving is an encouraging sign and a relief, to substantially improve the situation (that is, to resolve the food crisis and to decrease the price of grain) many more cargo ships will need to safely leave and then return to Ukraine. It is estimated that there are about 20 million tonnes of grain trapped in Ukrainian ports – therefore, it takes much more than a couple of ships to address the crisis. With this year’s harvest taken into account, the amount of ‘trapped’ grain could potentially rise to 75 million tonnes. The extra 55 million tonnes of grain are 30 per cent less than what Ukraine normally produces – due to the war, Ukraine’s agricultural output has significantly decreased.

The deal between Moscow and Kyiv was negotiated for two months, and it is set to last only for 120 days. Both parties need to agree on renewing the deal after these 120 days are over. The agreement opened a corridor from Ukrainian ports to the Istanbul strait. The corridor is 310 nautical miles long and three nautical miles wide. While 90 per cent of Ukrainian grain is exported on water, since the war Kyiv has also experimented with exporting grain through Romania and Poland, first on land, then from Baltic Sea ports in Northern Poland and Black Sea ports in South-Eastern Romania. There is also an on-land route through Hungary which we discussed in an earlier article. If the deal is not renewed after 120 days, these routes may need to be re-opened.

Lili Zemplényi is a graduate of University College London (UCL). Currently, she is completing her MA at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Previously, she worked as an intern at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Institute for Political Science.