In the middle of last week, military commanders, diplomats, grain markets and aid agencies worldwide were keenly tracking the progress across the Black Sea of an apparently unremarkable cargo ship.
Closely hugging the Romanian and Bulgarian coasts, the Resilient Africa chugged its way from the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk into the Bosphorus and on to the Middle East.
The 250ft merchant ship laden with 3,000 tonnes of grain had completed a notable passage. Sailing under the flag of Palau, it had defied Moscow’s blockade and become the first commercial vessel to visit and depart Ukraine since Russia pulled out of a safe-passage deal for exports and instead threatened to attack them.
The voyage marked an ambitious Ukrainian scheme to break Moscow’s naval siege and set up its own maritime corridor for its huge cereal and grain harvest.
It also demonstrated how 18 months into the war, Kyiv has turned the tables on Russia’s once mighty Black Sea fleet enough to keep its warships at bay – at least for now.
From the start, Russia’s naval blockade of Ukraine has been aimed at hammering agriculture, a mainstay of Kyiv’s economy and export earnings.
The Kremlin has also been accused of weaponising food as a global bargaining chip, by stopping exports from an agricultural giant once known as Europe’s breadbasket.
In the months immediately after the invasion, Ukraine’s exports fell by 90 per cent, prompting global wheat prices to spike to record levels in March 2022. Prices have since fallen back significantly but aid agencies say the blockade is still worsening the global food crisis, particularly in the poorest countries already suffering from shortages and price hikes.
A year-long international deal where Russia guaranteed safe passage for ships temporarily eased the problem, allowing the export of some 33 million tonnes of grain.
But Moscow pulled out of the agreement in July and Ukraine’s sea ports have been closed ever since, restricting exports to lengthier river, road and rail routes that can carry far less cargo.
“Getting the Black Sea ports open is the single most important thing we can do right now to help the world’s hungry,” David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme said last month.
“It will take more than grain ships out of Ukraine to stop world hunger, but with Ukrainian grain back on global markets we have a chance to stop this global food crisis from spiralling even further.”
The Resilient Africa was quickly followed by another vessel, the Aroyat, ferrying nearly 18,000 tonnes of grain to Egypt. Three more ships are thought to be waiting to depart Ukraine imminently.
Carving new routes
The development has raised hopes of a return to more normal trade, which in turn may lead to a drop in worldwide grain prices and relief to some of the world’s poorest countries.
Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the United Nations secretary-general, told the Telegraph: “While the UN is not involved in the movement of those vessels, we welcome all efforts for the resumption of normal trade, especially of vital food commodities that help supply and stabilise global food markets.
“We continue our efforts to facilitate exports for agricultural products from both Ukraine and the Russian Federation.”
Yet analysts warn the route is only in its early stages and Ukraine is so far doing little more than testing the channel. Kyiv has yet to convince international grain or shipping markets that it is safe, or that it is fully open for business.
“It was expected. It was obvious that Ukraine was preparing to test this new route and send some vessels in,” said one European diplomat monitoring the route.
“It’s very much a testing phase. When we see more or less normal movement going in and out of Ukraine, that’s when we will see the impact on the global markets.”
Last week’s shipping had been encouraging, but markets were waiting to see how the route fared, said Helen Plant, senior cereals analyst at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.
She said: “I think we are probably a little early. It’s an encouraging sign that things are moving, but I think the market will need to see more sustained shipments for them to get confident in that as an export route.”
Ukraine has managed to ease the blockade and weaken Russia’s grip on the Black Sea with a barrage of audacious missile and drone attacks. Earlier this month, a large Russian transport ship and an attack submarine were badly damaged in Sevastopol, while a command centre was blown apart, allegedly killing many senior officers.
Britain’s Ministry of Defence concluded the strikes against the Russian fleet made it “likely that its ability to continue wider regional security patrols and enforce its de facto blockade of Ukrainian ports will be diminished”.
The commander of Ukraine’s navy, Vice Adm Oleksiy Neizhpapa, last week said he was trying to encourage more shipping.
“We will assure their safety with all the means of our armed forces. We know the routes, we know the situation,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
The success of the channel will also rely on the esoteric world of maritime insurance.
Russia ‘will try to disrupt’ shipments
Shipowners and cargo buyers will only take the risk if they can be assured they will get compensation if vessels are damaged, detained or delayed.
Ukraine has been in talks for months with the insurance and shipping industry over how it could team up with the private sector to make cover available.
With insurers fearful of Russia action, industry sources said the first five vessels were thought to have been directly insured by Kyiv.
Then, on Tuesday, the broker Miller said it had set up a new insurance facility for grain exports in conjunction with Ukraine’s authorities.
Andrey Sizov, a leading analyst of the Black Sea grain trade and managing editor of the Sizov Report, said: “If there is insurance, that really lowers the risk of vessel owners and that could be a game changer.”
One of the biggest questions remains whether Russia will sit back and let exports leave, or will try to halt the shipping as it has threatened. It is unclear how effective the Black Sea fleet remains, or whether it is now preoccupied with the defence of Crimea.
“It’s important to see what the Kremlin will do about it,” said Mr Sizov. “So far they haven’t done anything about it and I do suspect it’s not really on their radar. But I do suspect that they will somehow try to disrupt those shipments, especially when and if we see more vessels.”
The new route also passes through the territorial waters of Romania and Bulgaria, who are both Nato members, giving it a degree of protection, analysts believe. The coastal waters are relatively shallow though. Larger vessels needed to really ramp up export capacity will need to sail further out to sea and closer to Russian forces.
Mario Bikarski, Russia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said: “The frequency of use of this export route is likely to pick up, and ships will continue to use Bulgarian and Romanian territorial waters. The route that way is longer, but significantly safer.”
He predicted that Russia would ultimately baulk at hitting international commercial vessels “as this could cause major repercussions”.
But security in and around Ukraine’s Black Sea waters will remain “very poor,” he predicted.
“This will ensure that Ukraine’s export capabilities through this route are nowhere near pre-war levels.”
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