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First Black Sea grain ships likely ‘this week,’ Ukraine says

Ukrainian officials expect the first grain cargo ships to leave the country’s ports within days, on the back of a deal designed to keep the vessels safe from Russian attack.

“Within this week, hopefully the first shipment will be sent out,” Ukraine’s Deputy Infrastructure Minister Yuriy Vaskov told reporters on Monday.

Moscow and Kyiv reached an agreement last Friday brokered by the United Nations and Turkey to reopen Ukraine’s seaports and guarantee safe passage for ships carrying grain through the Black Sea. The following day, Russia struck Odesa with missiles and hit port infrastructure facilities, according to Ukraine’s Southern Operation Command.

Ukraine said it will still implement the deal, which paves the way for at least 20 million tons of grain to be released after a five-month blockade. The closure of Ukrainian ports sparked fears of a global food crisis as prices for key commodities like wheat shot up.

Kyiv is hoping for a swift launch of the so-called joint coordination center in Istanbul, where military and civilian officials from the United Nations, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia will work together on the safe passage of agri-food shipments into and out of Black Sea ports.

Vaskov said Ukraine’s staff arrived in Istanbul on Monday, and “other counterparts will arrive there as well.”

Minister of Infrastructure of Ukraine Oleksandr Kubrakov at a signature ceremony for safe transportation of grain from Ukrainian ports | OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images

He added that “hopefully sometime Monday or Tuesday, all the internal technical documents regulating the work of the center would be endorsed and come Wednesday, it would be operational.”

The idea is to relaunch agri-food exports from the port of Chornomorsk “hopefully within 24 hours,” Vaskov said, “then the port of Odesa, and then Pivdennyi.” All three ports are close to each other in the region of Odesa.

It’s unclear which shipping companies will risk travel into the corridor, and how high the insurance costs to do so might be. Ukraine hopes that following its own publicly-owned companies, others might follow. 

“Our technical fleet of our state-run companies will be faring along this corridor first, so we’ll be leading the way, and the commercial ships will be following us,” said Vaskov.

Vaskov also said that Ukraine asked the U.N. and the International Maritime Organization, a U.N. agency, “to reconsider the criteria of safety and miliary risks that currently exist in the north-western part of the Black Sea, and they promised to do that because that would impact directly the insurance policy rate.”

He added that Ukraine expects insurance fees to decrease as a reaction to “the first successful trips of our ships.”

Ukraine’s Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov acknowledged that potential Russian attacks were still possible.

“We all clearly recognize that if something happens in the Black Sea, then this whole initiative will be put on hold,” Kubrakov said, adding that shelling could “scare the markets off.”

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