The wail of a Ukrainian tug boat’s horn marked the departure of the Razoni, a Sierra Leonian-flagged bulk carrier that began the journey at 9:30 a.m. local time. The ship was destined for Tripoli, Lebanon, according to Turkey’s Defense Ministry. It had been stranded in the Odessa port since Feb. 18, according to marine tracking data.
Ukraine’s minister of infrastructure, Oleksandr Kubrakov, said in a message on Twitter that the vessel was the first to depart the port of Odessa since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February. A Russian naval blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports halted grain exports, contributing to global food shortages.
“Thanks to the support of all our partner countries & @UN we were able to full implement the Agreement signed in Istanbul,” Kubrakov tweeted Monday morning.
Sixteen additional vessels are waiting to depart, according to the minister, who noted that the expected resumption of grain shipments would provide at least $1 billion in much-needed foreign currency reserves for cash-strapped Ukraine.
After months of intense negotiations, European, U.N. and Ukrainian officials welcomed the departure of the first vessel.
In a statement released Monday, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the ship’s departure is “an important first step” and expressed her gratitude to the “UN and Turkey for helping to secure this agreement.”
Russia and Ukraine were among the world’s top producers and exporters of grain, cooking oil and fertilizers before Moscow’s invasion. Last year, Ukraine accounted for 10 percent of global wheat exports, according to the United Nations.
With more than 20 million tons of grain from last year’s harvest stuck in storage, the resumption of shipments by sea has been a top priority for the Ukrainian government. But Russia’s blockade has forced grain sellers to use alternatives, including river ports or costly overland routes, that have delayed deliveries.
The July 22 agreement signed in Turkey guarantees the safe passage of commercial ships from Odessa and two other Ukrainian ports. Set to remain in force for 120 days, it relies on monitoring of designated maritime corridors by delegations from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations in Istanbul.
Turkey and the United Nations brokered negotiations for months amid disputes over the agreement’s terms, including security guarantees insisted upon by Ukraine. Russia and some Western countries had pushed for demining Ukraine’s ports, which Kyiv feared would leave it vulnerable to attack, U.N. officials said. In the end, avoiding the mines has been left to Ukrainian ship pilots guiding the merchant vessels.
A Russian missile strike on Odessa’s port less than 24 hours after the deal was concluded threatened to scuttle it.
“Ensuring that existing grain and foodstuffs can move to global markets is a humanitarian imperative,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in a statement welcoming the Razoni’s departure.
The Istanbul coordination center said in a statement that it had agreed to “specific coordinates and restrictions” along the maritime corridor and “requested all its participants to inform their respective military” and other authorities to ensure the Razoni’s safe passage. By Monday evening, marine tracking data showed the vessel making its way along the corridor, southwest of Odessa and hugging Ukraine’s coast.
It was expected to arrive in Turkish territorial waters Tuesday. After inspection in Turkey, it would continue on to Lebanon, the coordination center said.