By Daren Butler and Pavel Polityuk (Reuters) – Three-grain ships left Ukrainian ports on Friday while the first inbound cargo vessel since Russia’s invasion was due in Ukraine to load, as Kyiv called for the safe passage deal to be extended to other cargoes such as metals.
The July 22 deal marked a rare diplomatic breakthrough as war rages in eastern Ukraine, with Kyiv trying to rebuild its shattered economy after more than five months of conflict.
“We expect that the security guarantees of our partners from the U.N. and Turkey will continue to work, and food exports from our ports will become stable and predictable for all market participants,” Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said on Facebook after the ships set off.
“This agreement is about logistics, about the movement of vessels through the Black Sea,” Ukrainian Deputy Economy Minister Taras Kachka told Financial Times. “What’s the difference between grain and iron ore?”
The United Nations and Turkey brokered the safe passage deal between Moscow and Kyiv after U.N. warnings of possible outbreaks of famine due to a halt in grain shipments from Ukraine through the Russian-dominated Black Sea.
Fahrettin Altun, a top aide to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, said the safe passage agreement attested to the direct diplomacy between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan, who were meeting again on Friday in the Black Sea city of Sochi.
“The international community cannot end the war in Ukraine by ignoring Russia,” he said.
Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, sparking the biggest conflict in Europe since World War Two and fueling a global energy and food crisis.
The Turkish bulk carrier Osprey S, flying the flag of Liberia, was expected to arrive in Chornomorsk on Friday to load up with grain, the regional administration of Odesa said.
Russia and Ukraine traditionally produce about one third of global wheat and Russia is Europe’s main energy supplier. But Ukraine’s grain exports were down 48.6% year on year so far this season, its agriculture ministry said.
Ukraine hopes to export 20 million tonnes of grain in silos and 40 million from its new harvest, economic adviser Oleh Ustenko said in July. The government hopes to earn $10 billion from those volumes but Ustenko said it could take 20 to 24 months to export them if ports are not functioning properly.
Ukraine’s Seaport Authority said on Monday there were 68 ships in Ukrainian ports with 1.2 million tonnes of cargo on board, two-thirds of its food.
After five months of fighting, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy this week described the pressure his armed forces were under in the eastern Donbas region as “hell.”
Moscow is seeking to control the largely Russian-speaking Donbas, comprised of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, where pro-Moscow separatists seized territory after the Kremlin annexed Crimea to the south in 2014.
Zelenskiy spoke of fierce fighting around the town of Avdiivka and the fortified village of Pisky, where Ukraine has acknowledged its Russian foe’s “partial success” in recent days.
Russia’s TASS news agency cited separatist forces as saying Russian and pro-Russian forces had taken full control of Pisky. They also said that fighting was taking place in the city of Bakhmut, north of Donetsk.
Ukraine has spent the last eight years fortifying defensive positions in Pisky, seeing it as a buffer zone against Russian-backed forces holding Donetsk city about 10 km to the southeast.
Ukrainian General Oleksiy Hromov said his forces had retaken two villages around the eastern city of Sloviansk but had been pushed back to the town of Avdiivka after being forced to abandon a coal mine regarded as an important defensive position.
Reuters could not immediately verify either side’s assertions about battlefield developments.
Putin said he launched what he calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine to ensure Russian security and protect Russian speakers in Ukraine. Kyiv accuses Moscow of an imperial-style war to retake a pro-Western neighbor that shook off Russian domination when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.
In the latest in a sanctions stand-off with the West, Russia banned investors from so-called unfriendly countries from selling shares in key energy projects and banks until the end of the year.
Western countries and allies, including Japan, have piled financial restrictions on Russia since Feb. 24. Moscow retaliated with obstacles for Western businesses and their allies leaving Russia, and in some cases seized their assets.
The war has displaced millions, killed thousands of civilians and left cities, towns and villages in rubble. Ukraine and its Western allies have accused Russian forces of targeting civilians and war crimes, charges Russia rejects.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Michael Perry and Nick Macfie; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Mark Heinrich)
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