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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Amid Black Sea threats, Ukraine steps up use of new shipping route


Fog blankets the destroyed village of Blahodatne, in Ukraine’s Mykolaiv region on Sept. 23, 2023.

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg


Ukraine has stepped up its use of a new shipping route that has allowed it to begin reviving grain exports to circumvent a de facto Russian blockade of its Black Sea ports.


Repeated airstrikes by Russian forces since July on Ukraine’s port of Odesa after Russia’s withdrawal from a deal that had allowed Ukraine to export its food crops directly across the waters to Turkey had forced Ukraine to stop using its three Black Sea ports as an export route and work to establish an alternative.


Two ships successfully used the new route last week without incident, and three more cargo vessels have entered Ukrainian waters in recent days, according to officials.


When Russia withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July, it said it would consider any vessel approaching a Ukrainian port to be a potential carrier of military cargo and therefore a threat. The following month, members of the Russian military boarded a cargo vessel at gunpoint, reflecting the rising tensions on the Black Sea, which Western analysts have warned could escalate into violence involving countries not directly involved in the war.


With Ukraine’s Black Sea ports under fire, its shipping had since July been limited to exports on the Danube River through much smaller ports — which have also come under attack in recent weeks — and aboard much smaller vessels. Ukraine has also exported some grain since the full-scale invasion began via road and rail into the European Union, although this too has become fraught with difficulty amid opposition from governments in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.


But last week Ukraine successfully tested a new sea route, as two cargo vessels loaded with wheat sailed along the coast from Romania and then crossed back over the maritime border of Romania. As Romania is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, vessels in its waters are considered much less likely to be attacked. The second vessel carrying Ukrainian wheat reached Turkey via the Black Sea on Sunday, maritime traffic monitoring sites showed.


Three more cargo vessels — the Azara, the Ying Hao 01 and the Eneida — have entered the temporary corridor, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, said Friday in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.


Kubrakov said that the ships were “using the temporary corridor established by the Ukrainian navy” and would export 127 metric tons of Ukrainian agricultural products and iron ore for China, Egypt and Spain.


The MarineTraffic website, which tracks global shipping using satellite data, placed the Azara, the Eneida, and the Ying Hao 01 in or near Ukrainian ports south of Odesa on Friday and Saturday. However, the website did not give precise information about the locations of the three ships on Sunday, instead designating them as out of range. That could suggest the ships had switched off their transponders, perhaps for security reasons.


Ukraine is a major exporter of wheat and other food crops and its agricultural sector is a vital part of the country’s economy.


In the past week, it appears that Russia has made no public attempt to impede the progress of commercial vessels along the new route. Russia’s navy, the preeminent military force on the Black Sea, has faced increasing pressure from Ukrainian missile and drone strikes in and around Crimea, the peninsula Russia illegally annexed in 2014.


Ukraine has targeted Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion 19 months ago, sinking the fleet’s flagship, the Moskva, in April 2022. But since July, Ukraine has escalated its attacks. In the latest major strike on Friday, it used long-range missiles to target the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.


— Two people were killed in attacks by Russian forces in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region on Sunday, according to the Ukrainian head of the region’s military administration, Oleksandr Prokudin. In a post on the Telegram messaging app, Prokudin said a woman was killed in an attack on the city of Beryslav, and a man was killed in a strike on the nearby village of Lvove.


In a separate incident on Sunday, Russian shelling wounded six people in the regional capital, according to a post on Telegram from the city’s mayor, Roman Mrochko.


— A Ukrainian drone hit a government building in Russia’s Kursk region, which borders northeastern Ukraine, according to the regional governor, Roman Starovoit. He said on Telegram that the building’s roof had been slightly damaged and local air defenses had been activated. There was no immediate comment from Ukraine’s military, and the claim could not be independently verified.


In an increasingly bold campaign, Ukraine has launched attack drones at military and civilian infrastructure facilities in Russia in recent months, on several occasions hitting buildings in Moscow.


— President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine discussed investments in “the reconstruction of Ukraine” with some high-profile American business leaders during his trip to the United States last week, according to a post on his Telegram channel on Sunday.The message said Zelenskyy held meetings with Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City; Larry Fink, the chief executive of the giant asset manager BlackRock; and Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive of Google; among others.

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