MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — A ship loaded with corn on Monday became the first cargo vessel to sail from Ukraine in more than five months of war, passing through Russia’s naval blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and raising hopes that desperately needed food will soon reach nations afflicted by shortages and soaring prices.
The ship’s journey was the culmination of months of negotiations and an international campaign to get grain out of Ukraine, one of the world’s breadbaskets before the war. Russia’s invasion and blockade, along with Western sanctions impeding Russian exports and factors like drought and climate change, have sharply cut global grain supplies, threatening to bring famine to tens of millions of people, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.
Mediators from the United Nations and Turkey, which shares the Black Sea coast with Russia and Ukraine, oversaw months of talks in Istanbul. Though discussions seemed hopelessly mired for weeks, in late July the parties struck a deal to free more than 20 million tons of grain.
The agreement could easily unravel: The ship, the Razoni, is traveling through a war zone, at risk of an attack or accident, and a breach of trust or disagreement among inspectors and officials running the multinational operation could once again freeze ships in ports.
But if the voyage that began on Monday does go smoothly, it could be an important step toward alleviating shortages and lowering prices, though it cannot alone resolve the causes of a looming global hunger crisis.
“Ensuring that grain, fertilizers, and other food-related items are available at reasonable prices to developing countries is a humanitarian imperative,” António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, said Monday. “People on the verge of famine need these agreements to work, in order to survive.”
With such high stakes and intense Western and Ukrainian distrust that Russia would really let cargo leave port, the ship’s departure from Odesa was closely watched on Monday.
Crewed mostly by Syrian seaman, the Razoni was led out of the port by a tugboat. Carrying 26,000 tons of corn, the vessel and tug first navigated sea mines, placed by Ukraine to forestall any amphibious assault by Russia, and then passed by the Russian Navy vessels that largely control the Black Sea and granted safe passage.
The ship was set to stop in Turkish waters for inspection by a joint team from Turkey, the United Nations, Ukraine and Russia on Tuesday before continuing on to the Lebanese port of Tripoli.
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Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kurbakov, said the Razoni left around 9:30 a.m. local time. There are 16 more ships waiting to leave Odesa in the coming days, he said.
If successful, the deal to export grain could have significant economic consequences for Ukraine. The country’s agriculture minister, Mykola Solskyi, said last week that there was $10 billion worth of grain stored in Ukraine and that the incoming harvest would add a further $20 billion to that amount. Ukraine is a leading exporter of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil.
Alongside the deal on Ukraine’s produce, another agreement would enable Russia to export grain and fertilizer, further easing the immense pressure on markets and farmers, especially in the developing world. Russia, whose exports have been constrained by Western sanctions, is a major supplier of fertilizer, and with Ukraine it supplies more than a quarter of the world’s wheat.
But as the Razoni’s Black Sea crossing raised hopes for some degree of cooperation between the combatants, the fighting intensified on multiple fronts in Ukraine.
Preparing for a counteroffensive in the southern Kherson region, Ukraine has used long-range precision weapons, recently supplied by the West, to disrupt Russian supply lines and logistics. Ukrainian forces have attacked Russian command and control centers, hit supply routes, tried to isolate Russian forces into pockets, and enlisted Ukrainian saboteurs behind enemy lines.
On Monday, Ukrainian officials said that, using American-supplied rocket artillery, their forces had blown up a Russian train carrying troops and equipment to reinforce positions in southern Ukraine, killing dozens of soldiers and destroying many rail cars.
“According to intelligence data, all the drivers and engineers of the Russian Railways company, who were transporting military cargo from Crimea to the Kherson region, were killed,” Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, said Monday morning.
Although his claims could not be independently verified, video of an explosion and satellite imagery of the aftermath offered evidence that the Ukrainians had struck a Russian train along one of two main rail lines running from Crimea to southern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military also said Monday that it had in recent weeks destroyed at least 15 ammunition depots in the south, affecting supplies enough to force Russia to use surface-to-air missiles to strike ground targets. Western analysts have said that as the war goes on, Russian is relying more on munitions that are imprecise, or are designed for other uses, to bombard Ukrainian cities, causing indiscriminate damage — and possibly signaling that it is running low on the most advanced precision weapons.
The Pentagon said last week that Ukraine was using Western weapons to increasing effect, and becoming very adept at attacking Russian command and control hubs and destroying large amounts of Russian equipment. On Monday, the Biden administration announced another round of support for Ukraine: $550 million in military aid, including more ammunition for 155-millimeter howitzer artillery pieces and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, that the United States has already provided.
But for all its sluggish or faltering progress in the war, Russia retains vast advantages in the size of its arsenal, and its military has shown a willingness and ability to strike all over the country, even as it focuses on gaining ground in eastern Ukraine. There, Russia has blanketed town after town with overwhelming artillery fire as it tries to reposition ground forces to press forward.
The strategy slowly gave Russia control of the eastern Luhansk Province, leaving many cities and villages in ruins. Russian forces have since moved to reinforce the south and to push into another eastern province, Donetsk.
“Their tactic remains much the same as it was during the hostilities in Luhansk region,” Serhiy Haidai, head of Ukraine’s Luhansk regional government, said on Monday.
He said the Russians were making daily attempts to mount an offensive on the city of Bakhmut, in Donetsk, but so far had failed to break through the main Ukrainian defensive lines.
Russian forces have also continued to shell residential and military areas in and around the city of Kharkiv in the northeast, putting pressure on Ukraine not to shift too many of its defenses from there.
In Chuhuiv, in the Kharkiv region and just 10 miles from Russian lines, residents were still recovering on Monday from missile strikes last week on the House of Culture, a building used since Soviet times for cultural events. In wartime, the building’s kitchens were used to prepare food for the needy, but members of the city government had also used it as a temporary office, possibly a reason for the attack.
The missiles killed three people sheltering in the basement and wounded several more, according to Oleh Synyehubov, the Kharkiv regional administrator. A volunteer cook was among the dead, residents said. His brother and several other people survived.
Two women were also killed, one of whom had been helping the cook, said a resident who gave only his first name, Maksim, wary of possible retribution. They were making an Uzbek rice dish, plov, for people in the neighborhood.
“She was just cleaning vegetables,” Maksim said.
Chuhuiv has come under increasing bombardment in recent days, as have the city of Kharkiv and other villages and towns in the province. Soldiers guarding the approaches to the city on Sunday said that artillery strikes had been steady much of the day, hitting an industrial area around the train station.
The Russians “are hitting lots of places like this, all the schools as well,” said Maksim. “They are doing it to make the people leave.”
People were getting the message, and the town was largely empty, he said. He was preparing to leave too, he said. He and his family had plans to emigrate to Canada.
“There is nothing left here,” he said.
Michael Schwirtz reported from Mykolaiv, Ukraine, Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London. Reporting was contributed by Carlotta Gall and Kamila Hrabchuk from Chuhuiv, Ukraine, Marc Santora from London and Alan Yuhas from New York.