August 17, 2023
An international cargo ship carrying Ukrainian grain has defied Russian threats of a naval blockade in the Black Sea and sailed out of the port of Odesa. The Joseph Schulte, a Hong Kong-flagged vessel, left the port early on Wednesday morning with 30,000 tonnes of cargo, including 2,114 containers of food products, according to Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister. It is the first time a cargo ship has sailed from Odesa since Russia pulled out of the Black Sea grain deal last month, warning that civilian vessels carrying Ukrainian cargo would be regarded as legitimate military targets.
Despite the incendiary threats from Moscow, marine traffic sites showed the Joseph Schulte approaching its final destination in Istanbul on Thursday, after moving along a western route that avoided international waters in favour of those controlled by the Nato members Romania and Bulgaria. “Ukraine has just made an important step toward restoring the freedom of navigation in the Black Sea,” President Zelensky said.
About 25 ships have been trapped in the Ukrainian ports of Odesa, Pivdennyi and Chornomorets since Russia abandoned the deal, which was credited with reducing worldwide food prices by 20 per cent, according to Dmytro Barinov, the deputy chief executive of the Ukrainian Sea Ports Authority.
The abandonment of the grain deal, which allowed Ukraine to export 33 million tonnes of maize, wheat and sunflower oil, sent worldwide food prices rising again.
In an interview with The Times, Barinov accused the Russian navy of behaving like “pirates”. He said: “It’s a global issue, not a regional issue. This is not a Ukrainian problem that farmers can’t sell their products to the market, it’s a worldwide problem. “A lot of countries are suffering because of it. It’s fuelling inflation. If you’re in Ethiopia, Kenya or Bangladesh, it’s disastrous. The Black Sea is an international sea, not a Russian sea or a Ukrainian sea. They are behaving like pirates.”
Storage facilities around Odesa have been filling up at a crucial time of the year for Ukrainian farmers, following the harvest of the wheat crop earlier this summer and with sunflowers approaching full bloom. The Times saw long queues on roads around Odesa as lorry drivers waited to unload their goods at the port.
The harvest of 2023 is expected to be below the 60 million tonnes collected last year, according to Mykola Horbachov, the head of the Ukrainian Grain Association. The harvest of 2021, the year before the Russian invasion, was a record 106 million tonnes.
Tensions in the Black Sea have been mounting since Russia’s withdrawal from the UN-brokered grain deal on July 17. On Wednesday, Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, claimed responsibility for three recent strikes — on the Kerch Bridge in Crimea and two Russian ships — as it unveiled its “Sea Baby” naval drone used to carry out the attacks. “These drones are produced at an underground production facility in the territory of Ukraine. We are working on a
number of new interesting operations, including in the Black Sea waters. I promise you, it’ll be exciting, especially for our enemies,” Vasyl Maliuk, the head of the SBU, told CNN.
Meanwhile, Moscow has claimed it fired warning shots from the Vasily Bykov patrol ship at the Sukru Okan, a Palau-flagged cargo vessel, last week. The Russian Ministry of Defence later released footage of a Ka-29 helicopter boarding the ship as it headed for the port of Izmail on the Danube river.
A logjam of international cargo ships has formed at the mouth of the Danube as exporters attempt to use the Ukrainian ports along the river as an alternative to the blockaded ports around Odesa.
Moscow has responded by launching waves of missile and drone attacks at the Danube ports of Izmail and Reni, which lie only a few hundreds of metres from Romania, a Nato-member state.
The most recent Russian drone attacks earlier this week targeted grain silos and warehouses in Reni, ruining tonnes of Ukrainian grain. Barinov said another queue of ships waiting to enter the Black Sea had formed at the Bosphorus and said the reopening of Ukraine’s sea ports was vital to stabilising international food prices. “There’s no other way. We can’t compare with big deep port terminals which can load more than 100,000 tonnes in three days,” he said. “We are ready. We keep all our staff on payroll. That is why the port was able to resume operations in one week after it was blocked for six months at the beginning of the war. We keep the berths, railways, roads in good shape. We can resume almost straight away.” He also dismissed concerns about sea mines in the Black Sea after a drifting explosive detonated on a sea wall in a Romanian beach resort this week. “In one and a half years of the Black Sea grain initiative, vessels have come in and out and we haven’t had an accident,” he said.
George Grylls covers defence and politics for The Times. He won the Anthony Howard Award for Young Journalists in 2019.