ODESA — After two days of a closely-watched and perilous route from the mine-ridden Odesa port, the Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni ship arrived in Istanbul on Aug. 3.
The vessel carrying Ukrainian grain was the first ship to leave the city since Russia began its sea blockade in February.
The ship’s cargo of over 26,000 tons of maize was inspected by the newly established Joint Coordination Center, which includes representatives from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, and the United Nations, and is now expected to pass through the Bosphorus Strait "shortly."
The cargo’s final destination is the Port of Tripoli in Lebanon.
The success of the trip was a relief for Dmytro Barinov, the tanned sailor-looking deputy CEO of Ukrainian Sea Port Authorities, in charge of supervising the shipment in Odesa’s heavily guarded port.
This first journey could open the route for 23 more ships full to the brim with agricultural products, including corn, wheat, sunflower seed, and oil, Barinov told the Kyiv Independent.
Sixteen boats are ready to go, and seven will be ready “very soon” to export a total of 820,000 tons of goods in the near future, he said.
“Now it's just a matter of loading the ships,” he said with cautious optimism.
It’s a first step toward unblocking millions of tons of crops and easing global food prices while avoiding a worldwide famine waged by the Kremlin’s blockade of Ukraine, Barinov said.
“Everybody in Ukraine understands that we need to do this,” he said. “But Russians can’t be trusted,” he added, raising doubts that the Kremlin will hold up its end of the bargain.
The first two weeks are set to be a trial period in the four-month-long agreement between Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, and the United Nations signed on July 22 in Istanbul.
The agreement was immediately followed by a Russian attack on Odesa’s port infrastructures, imperiling the deal.
No more than three vessels a day will leave Ukraine through pre-established corridors, Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov told Bloomberg on July 23.
The goods will be loaded in Odesa and its two satellite ports of Pivdennyi and Chornomorsk, each with its own specificity.
Pivdennyi is the coast’s biggest and deepest port. The vessels that can be loaded in Pivdennyi can't be loaded in Odesa because of their sizes, Barinov said.
It also has high-tech terminals, which allow ships to be loaded faster through a dense railway network bringing grains from inland to the three ports, allowing simultaneous loads in massive quantities.
Ukraine could ship an estimated 20 million metric tons of grains trapped in the country since Russia launched its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, if the deal still stands.
Before the war, the three ports were able to send out 10,000 vessels a year, a “huge number” Barinov said.
Barinov took pride in how Ukrainians managed to keep the ports in good shape to resume exports as soon as possible.
Military aside, roughly a hundred employees keep working in the ports to maintain their infrastructure, regardless of the risks of a Russian missile strike coming from the Black Sea Fleet.
“You need to control everything and even cut the grass because of fire hazards, that’s why we still have the staff coming every day to the port,” he said. “That's why we can resume the export and cargo operations very fast.”
The ships' routes are known in advance and easy to track on open data such as AIS, an international identification system used to monitor boats and marine traffic in real-time.
The safety of the crew can be a reason to change the route, especially around the mine-ridden Black Sea coast.
On July 31, a Ukrainian floating crane collided with a marine explosive device near Bystry, not far from the Danube’s end. The crew was evacuated, but such risk is part of the danger facing crews traveling through the blockade.
It’s also easy to track cargo, Barinov said, which leaves little doubt over Russia’s large-scale theft of grain since the beginning of the invasion.
On June 30, a Russian merchant ship left Russian-occupied Berdyansk with 7,000 tons of grain aboard. Russia has stolen hundreds of thousands of grain during the war, then sold it to Syria, one of the Kremlin’s allies in the Middle East.
“All grain that comes from Ukrainian ports is Ukrainian, even from Crimea,” Barinov said. “It’s the 21st century, so it's easy to track the vessels and the cargo.”
However, loading such quantities on ships en route to Turkey and Lebanon means bringing the grain to the ports, currently a massive challenge for Ukraine.
The Dnipro River, used for shipping grain south, is under constant attack from Russian forces, compromising Ukrainian efforts to export agricultural products abroad.
“First of all, we need to liberate Nova Kakhovka near Kherson, because it's a bottleneck of the Dnipro River,” Barinov said.
The river is the cheapest means of transportation, especially for slow cargo, when trucks can be used for faster delivery. “If you can wait months or weeks for sure, you need to use seagoing vessels or river barges,” he said.
An additional threat complicating Ukrainian logistics is Russia’s scorched earth strategy aimed at stopping Ukrainian farmers from harvesting the land, which is extremely dry due to unusually hot temperatures in the southern part of the country.
It is also the area heavily targeted by Russian forces, whose shelling causes fires in the fields.
On July 26 alone, Russian forces destroyed 230 hectares of wheat in Mykolaiv Oblast in a few strikes, according to the State Emergency Service.
Shelling also burned more than 400 hectares of crops in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast as of July 21, while 12,000 hectares of crops can’t be harvested because the area is “covered in Russian shells,” according to local authorities.
In late July, the Kyiv Independent witnessed wheat fields still burning in the gray zone of Mykolaiv Oblast, near the front line, some 110 kilometers northeast of Odesa.
“They're trying to starve us,” a Ukrainian soldier told the Kyiv Independent while watching the horizon set ablaze on this hot summer day. “F*cking Russians.”
Note from the author:
Hello, this is Alexander Query, the author of this story.
I am on my way from Odesa, where I went to report this story, to our headquarters in Kyiv. Field reporting is essential, but in a country at war it's also costly. It couldn't happen without your support. Please donate and become our patron to help us bring you the latest from the ground. Thank your for your support!