The first shipment of grain from Ukraine since the Kremlin’s invasion five months ago sailed through Istanbul on Wednesday under a landmark deal designed to help alleviate a global food crisis sparked by the war.
The Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni’s voyage from the Black Sea port of Odessa to Lebanon is being watched closely for signs of how the first agreement signed by Moscow and Kyiv since Russia invaded its pro-Western neighbour holds.
A deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations last month lifted a Russian naval blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea cities and set terms for millions of tonnes of wheat and other grain to start flowing from filled silos and ports.
Ukraine exports roughly half of the sunflower oil used on the world market and is a major grain supplier.
An almost complete halt to its exports helped push up global food prices and make imports prohibitively expensive in some of the world’s poorest countries.
The Razoni took 26,000 tonnes of maize through a specially designated corridor in the mine-infested waters of the Black Sea before reaching the northern edge of the Bosphorus Strait on Tuesday.
A team of 20 inspectors from the two warring parties and the UN and Turkey strapped on orange helmets and boarded the ship early Wednesday for a mandated inspection that officials said lasted less than 90 minutes.
The ship’s passage is being overseen by an international team that includes Russian and Ukrainian officials in Istanbul.
“This marks the conclusion of an initial ‘proof of concept’ operation to execute the agreement” between Russian, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Nations, the team said after the ship was cleared to pass through Istanbul.
The 186-metre (610-foot) long vessel now moves on to the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean before it is set to reach the coast of Lebanon in the coming days.
Kyiv says at least 16 more grain ships are waiting to depart.
But it also accuses Russia of stealing Ukrainian grain in territories seized by Kremlin forces, then shipping it to allied countries such as Syria.
Turkish hopes that the deal could help build trust and lead to ceasefire talks have so far been disappointed.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to push for direct ceasefire negotiations when he meets Vladimir Putin at the Russian leader’s Black Sea retreat in Sochi on Friday.
“We discussed if the grain agreement can be an occasion for a sustainable ceasefire,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said after meeting Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Cambodia on Wednesday.
Yet Russia continues to pound southern Ukrainian cities near the Black Sea with missiles and press on with its grinding ground assault across the east.
Moscow said on Wednesday that it had also destroyed a foreign arms depot in a region near Poland that is further removed from the war.
The attack coincided with a visit to Kyiv by Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau.
Kyiv has launched mandatory evacuations from the eastern Donetsk region — now bearing the brunt of Russia’s offensive — because the government does not expect to be able to provide it with heat in the cold winter months.
Ukrainian forces have been pressing a counter-offensive to drive out the Russians from the southern Kherson region that they seized in the first days of war, near the Kremlin-annexed peninsula of Crimea.
The Ukrainian presidency said it had “liberated” seven more villages in the southern region while 53 remained under Russian control.
Ukraine has been bolstered by more supplies of Western weapons — particularly long-range rockets — ahead of the planned push to retake Kherson city.
These include longer-range ammunition for increasingly important HIMARS rocket launchers and artillery pieces.
Ukraine is using the HIMARS and similar Western systems to smash Russian arms depots and break down its lines of ground communication across the war zone.
The Russians have been unable to seize any major village or city since gaining full control of the Donbas war zone’s smaller Lugansk region in early July.
Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky told US President Joe Biden in a message that “the word ‘HIMARS’ has become almost synonymous with the word ‘justice’ for our country”.
Russia has responded by sharply reducing natural gas supplies to Europe and stepping up its propaganda battle against the West and Kyiv.
Its energy giant Gazprom on Wednesday said the delivery of a turbine needed to keep gas flowing to Europe via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline was “impossible” due to sanctions on Moscow, increasing fears of further gas cuts.
The latest Russian reduction along the Nord Stream pipeline to Germany has forced Berlin to reassess its plans to wean itself off nuclear energy in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Wednesday said extending the lifetime of Germany’s three remaining nuclear power plants “can make sense”.