Ukraine has shipped a daily record tonnage of grain via a UN and Turkish administered scheme despite the withdrawal of Russia, and warnings from Moscow that continuing grain shipments without its approval would be “risky”.
A large convoy of ships carrying grain set sail from Odesa on Monday despite Russia pulling out of the UN-brokered deal – designed to stave off a global hunger crisis – in retaliation for a drone attack on warships based in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol.
With Kyiv signalling its determination to press ahead with shipments under the three-month-old deal, the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, warned: “In conditions when Russia is talking about the impossibility of guaranteeing the safety of shipping in these areas, such a deal is hardly feasible, and it takes on a different character – much more risky, dangerous and unguaranteed.”
Peskov blamed the actions of Ukraine for disrupting the deal. Kyiv has accused Moscow of “blackmailing the world with hunger”. Peskov said Russian contact with Turkey and the UN was continuing but he declined to comment when asked what needed to happen, from Russia’s point of view, for the deal to be resumed.
The agreement, which established a safety corridor through which vessels could travel to Istanbul for inspections, had already allowed more than 9m tonnes of Ukrainian grain to be exported and was due to be renewed on 19 November. Russia’s defence ministry has described Moscow’s actions as suspending its participation in the agreement.
Late on Monday, Vladimir Putin accused Kyiv of using the corridor for an attack on Russia’s Crimea fleet and called on Ukraine to guarantee the safety of maritime traffic.
“It’s a threat to our ships and our civilian vessels,” Putin said, stressing that Russia did not withdraw from the deal but “suspended” involvement.
Ukraine has neither confirmed nor denied it was behind last week’s attack on Sevastopol, which Moscow said was caused by a swarm of sea and air drones, but has said Russia’s navy is a legitimate military target.
At least 12 ships carrying grain left Ukrainian ports on Monday, including the Admiral de Ribas and Mount Baker, which left the port days after Russia suspended its participation in an agreement that allowed vital grain shipments to pass through the Black Sea.
The Russian withdrawal prompted an outcry from Ukraine, Nato, the EU and the US. Joe Biden on Saturday called Russia’s move “purely outrageous” and said it would increase starvation. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, accused Moscow of weaponising food.
On Monday morning, a spokesperson for Odesa’s military administration said 354,500 tonnes had been shipped out of Ukrainian ports, the most moved in a single day since the grain deal was brokered. Ukraine shipped just shy of that volume – 345,000 tonnes – on 27 September.
“Today 12 ships left Ukrainian ports,” the Ukrainian infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, wrote on Twitter. “The Russian delegation has been informed.”
Marine tracking websites showed a number of cargo ships leaving Odesa and heading west.
Separately, four other vessels were cleared to head to Ukrainian ports as they had already been inspected by representatives of the UN, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia, Kubrakov said. Also among the vessels departing Ukraine on Monday was the Ikaria Angel, a vessel headed for Ethiopia with 40,000 tonnes of grain, he said.
“This is the 7th (vessel) chartered under the @UN @WFP. These foodstuffs were intended for the residents of Ethiopia, who faced the real possibility of mass starvation,” he tweeted.
Russian naval operations in the Black and Azov seas have been hampered by Ukrainian attacks that have sunk the Black Sea fleet flagship the Moskva, and reportedly damaged its replacement, the Admiral Makarov.
Despite the warning to Kyiv from Moscow, it was unclear whether the Kremlin would risk targeting civilian ships sailing under the auspices of a UN-administered scheme. However, Russia has struck the port facilities in Odesa on numerous occasions, leading to fears it might escalate its attacks on the strategic southern coastal city.
Another looming issue may be whether insurers are willing to provide cover for grain shipments if Russia is not participating in the deal. On Monday, the Lloyd’s insurer Ascot said it had paused writing cover for new shipments using the Ukrainian grain corridor until it could better understand the situation.
Raising concerns about the potential Russian response, Amir M Abdulla, the UN coordinator for the Black Sea grain initiative, tweeted on Monday: “Civilian cargo ships can never be a military target or held hostage. The food must flow.”
The news that Moscow was pulling out of the deal sent global wheat prices soaring by more than 5% on Monday morning.