“The first ship, the first ship is loaded since the beginning of the war,” Zelenskyy said at a port in the Odessa region.
However, he said the departure of wheat and other grain will begin with several ships already loaded but unable to leave Ukrainian ports after Russia invaded in late February. Ukraine is a major global exporter of wheat, barley, maize and sunflower oil, and the loss of those supplies has pushed world food prices up, threatened political instability and helped push more people into poverty and hunger in already vulnerable countries.
The Ukrainian military is committed to ship safety, Zelenskyy said, adding that “it is important to us that Ukraine continues to act as a guarantor of global food security.”
Its unannounced visit to the port is part of a wider effort by Ukraine to show the world that it is almost ready to export millions of tons of grains following last week’s groundbreaking agreements negotiated by Turkey and the United Nations. and signed separately by Ukraine and Russia.
The parties agreed to facilitate the shipment of wheat and other grains from three Ukrainian ports via secure corridors on the Black Sea, as well as fertilizers and food from Russia.
But a Russian missile attack on Odessa hours after the deal was signed has cast doubt on Moscow’s commitment and raised new concerns about the safety of ship crews, who also have to navigate waters riddled with explosive mines.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov emphasized on Friday the importance of maintaining a “link between getting grain from Ukrainian ports and unblocking direct or indirect restrictions on the export of our grain, fertilizers and other goods to world markets.”
Security concerns and the complexity of the agreements have led to a slow, cautious start, with no grain leaving Ukrainian ports yet. The sides face a ticking clock – the deal is only valid for 120 days.
The goal for the next four months is to get some 20 million tons of grain from three Ukrainian seaports that have been blocked since the February 24 invasion. That gives about four to five large bulk carriers a day to transport grain from ports to millions of people in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, who are already battling food shortages and in some cases famine.
The collection of wheat and other foodstuffs is also critical for farmers in Ukraine, who are running out of storage capacity due to a new crop.
“We are ready,” Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, told reporters in the port of Odessa on Friday.
But he said Ukraine is waiting for the UN to confirm the safe corridors that will be used by ships navigating the waters. Meanwhile, a ship was loaded with grains in the port of Chernomorsk, he said.
Martin Griffiths, the UN official who brokered the deals, warned that work is still underway to determine the exact coordinates of the safest routes, saying it “must be absolutely recorded”.
Lloyd’s List, a global publisher of shipping news, noted on Friday that while UN officials are pushing for the maiden voyage this week to show progress on the deal, lingering uncertainty over key details is likely to prevent shipments from ramping up immediately.
“Until these logistical issues and detailed overviews of safety procedures are disseminated, no charters will be agreed and insurers will not insure shipments,” wrote Lloyd’s List’s Bridget Diakun and Richard Meade.
However, they note that UN agencies, such as the World Food Program, have already agreed to charter much of the grain for urgent humanitarian needs.
Since the deal was signed a week ago, shipping companies have not walked in because of explosive mines floating in the waters, shipowners are assessing the risks and many still have questions about how the agreement will develop.
Ukraine, Turkey and the UN are trying to take action on the deal signed a week ago. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told Al Jazeera on Thursday that “the deal has started in practice” and that the first ship to leave Ukraine carrying grains is expected to leave “very soon”.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressed similar optimism in a press conference, calling the deal a significant step forward between the warring parties.
“This is not just another step to remove barriers to food exports. If implemented successfully, it will be a serious confidence-building measure for both parties,” he said.
The deal stipulates that Russia and Ukraine will provide “maximum guarantees” to ships braving the Black Sea voyage to the Ukrainian ports of Odessa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny.
For ships going to Ukraine’s three ports, smaller Ukrainian pilot boats will guide the ships through approved corridors. The entire operation will be overseen by a joint coordination center in Istanbul, staffed by officials from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations.
Once ships reach port, they will be loaded with tens of thousands of tons of grains before returning to the Bosphorus, where they will board to inspect them for weapons. Inspections are also likely to take place for ships going to Ukraine.
Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Susan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey; and Edith M. Lederer of the United Nations contributed to this report.