ISTANBUL (AP) — The first grain ship to leave Ukraine and cross the Black Sea under a wartime deal passed inspection in Istanbul on Wednesday and headed for Lebanon. Ukraine said another 17 ships were “loaded and awaiting clearance to leave”, but it was not yet clear when they might leave.
A joint civilian inspection team spent three hours checking the cargo and crew of the Sierra Leone-flagged vessel Razoni, which left Odessa on Monday with Ukrainian maize, according to a UN statement.
The Joint Coordination Center team included officials from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations, who last month signed agreements to create safe shipping lanes in the Black Sea to export agricultural products that Ukraine desperately needs as Russia’s war on its neighbor continues.
READ MORE: Russia designates Ukrainian Azov regiment as terrorist
Ukraine is a major global grain supplier, but the war had blocked most exports, so the July 22 deal was aimed at facilitating food security around the world. Global food prices have soared in a crisis blamed on war, supply chain issues and COVID-19. Mistrust between Kyiv and Moscow has clouded the deal, which lasts 120 days but can be renewed.
Although US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Razoni’s trip a “significant milestone”, no other ship has sailed from Ukraine in the past 48 hours and officials on all sides have given no explanation for this delay.
A UN statement said three Ukrainian ports were to resume exports of millions of tons of wheat, corn and other crops. He said inspectors had “obtained valuable information” from the crew of the Razoni on their journey through the Black Sea maritime humanitarian corridor.
The Joint Coordination Center is “finishing the procedures”, he said.
Turkey’s Ministry of National Defense tweeted a picture of an inspector rummaging through the Razoni’s open hold and touching part of its cargo: 26,527 tons of corn for chicken feed. The Razoni’s horn sounded as the inspectors left the ship, then it headed for Lebanon.
The checks aim to ensure that outgoing cargo ships only carry grain, fertilizer or food and not other goods, and that incoming ships do not carry weapons.
An estimated 20 million tonnes of grain – most of which is believed to be for livestock – has been stuck in Ukraine since the start of the 6-month war. The UN-brokered deal called for the creation of safe corridors through mined waters outside Ukrainian ports.
However, a trip to the Black Sea carries significant risks due to the war. Two civilian ships hit explosive devices there last week near the Bystre estuary of the Danube, according to Bridget Diakun, data reporter at Lloyd’s List, a global maritime publication.
READ MORE: Ukraine aims to retake the south, tying up Russian forces
Analysts say the authorities’ top priority is to get out ships stuck for months in the three Ukrainian ports covered by the deal. Sixteen grain-laden ships have been stuck in the ports of Odessa and Chernomorsk since the Russian invasion, according to Lloyd’s List.
Even slower than that is the effort to bring ships into Ukrainian ports to extract the millions of tonnes of stored grain.
Insurance brokers are “cautious, slow, so far,” said David Osler, insurance editor at Lloyd’s List. “At this point, everyone hesitates.”
Grain stocks are expected to continue to grow. Despite the war, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal has estimated that his country will harvest up to 67 million tonnes of grain this year, up from 60 million tonnes last year.
A senior official of a major Ukrainian agricultural association estimated that Ukraine will have around 50 million tonnes of grain to export this year.
Before the war, Ukraine exported about 5 to 6 million tons of grain per month, according to Denys Marchuk, deputy director of the All-Ukrainian Agrarian Council. He said Ukrainian authorities hoped to include more Black Sea ports in the export deal.
Robert Badendieck and Mehmet Guzel in Istanbul and Aya Batrawy in Dubai contributed to this report.