The first shipment of grain from Ukraine since Russia’s invasion five months ago has passed inspection in Istanbul and was on its way to Lebanon on Wednesday, as Ukraine said 17 other vessels were “loaded and waiting permission to leave.”
The Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni’s voyage, which started at the Black Sea port of Odesa, is being watched closely for signs of how the landmark agreement signed by Moscow and Kyiv since Russia invaded its pro-Western neighbour holds.
A deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations last month lifted a Russian naval blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea cities and set terms for millions of tonnes of wheat and other grain to start flowing from Ukraine’s filled silos and ports.
Ukraine exports roughly half of the sunflower oil used on the world market and is one of the world’s main suppliers of grain.
A near-total halt to its exports helped push up global food prices and make imports prohibitively expensive in some of the poorest countries in the world.
The Razoni took 26,000 tonnes of maize through a specially designated corridor in the mine-infested waters of the Black Sea before reaching the northern edge of the Bosphorus Strait on Tuesday.
The ship’s passage is being overseen by an international team that includes Russian and Ukrainian officials in Istanbul.
A team of 20 inspectors from the two warring parties and the UN and Turkey strapped on orange helmets and boarded the ship early on Wednesday for a mandated inspection that officials said lasted less than 90 minutes.
Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Istanbul, said that the inspectors were double-checking its documents and the products that had been loaded on board before it left Odesa.
“Today is an historic day as this has been a delicate test for the JCC … and there are other vessels to follow.”
The 186-metre-(610-foot-) long vessel will move on to the Marmara and Aegean seas before reaching the coast of Lebanon in the coming days.
More ships waiting
Although US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Razoni’s journey a “significant step,” no other ships have left from Ukraine in the past 48 hours and officials on all sides have given no explanation for that delay.
A UN statement said three Ukrainian ports are due to resume exports of millions of tonnes of wheat, corn and other crops. It said inspectors “gained valuable information” from the Razoni’s crew about its voyage through the Black Sea maritime humanitarian corridor.
The Joint Coordination Center is “fine-tuning procedures,” it said.
The spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said said the UN expected more “outbound movement in the next few days.”
“We are very realistic, we need to take things one day at a time … there are more than 25 ships in Ukrainian harbours that need to make their way out,” Stephane Dujarric told Al Jazeera from the UN’s headquarters in New York.
“But things are working and they’re working well today and we can only be moved by the images that we have seen coming out of Istanbul today.”
A senior Turkish official was cited by the Reuters news agency as saying three ships could leave Ukrainian ports daily after the Razoni’s departure, while Ukraine’s infrastructure minister said 17 more ships had been loaded with agricultural produce and were waiting to depart, but there has been no word yet on when they could sail.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dismissed the importance of the first grain-export shipment from his country since Russia invaded, saying it was carrying a fraction of the crop Kyiv must sell to help salvage its shattered economy.
“Just recently, thanks to the UN in partnership with Turkey, we had a first ship with the delivery of grain, but it’s still nothing. But we hope it’s a tendency that will continue,” he told students in Australia via video.
He said Ukraine had to export a minimum of 10 million tonnes of grain to urgently help bring down its budget deficit which was running at $5bn a month.
Turkey’s hopes that the grain deal could help build trust and lead to ceasefire talks have so far been disappointed.
Russia has continued to pound southern Ukrainian cities near the Black Sea with missiles and pressed on with its grinding ground assault across the east.
Officials in Mykolaiv said no one was killed on Wednesday in shelling on one of the southern city’s supermarkets that came just days after the region’s grain mogul and his wife died in a deliberate raid on their house.
Moscow said on Wednesday that it had destroyed another foreign arms depot in western Ukraine – a region furthest removed from the fighting.
Kyiv has launched mandatory evacuations from the eastern Donetsk region – now bearing the brunt of Russia’s offensive – because the government does not expect to be able to provide it with heat in the cold winter months.
Kyiv’s forces have been pressing a counteroffensive to drive out the Russians from the southern Kherson region that they seized in the first days of war near the Kremlin-annexed peninsula of Crimea.
The Ukrainian presidency said it had “liberated” seven more villages in the southern region while 53 remained under Russian control.
Ukraine has been bolstered by more supplies of Western weapons – particularly long-range rockets – ahead of the planned push to retake Kherson city.
The United States announced a new tranche of weapons worth $550m for Ukraine’s forces.
These include longer-range ammunition for increasingly important High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems or HIMARS rocket launchers and artillery pieces.
Ukraine is using the HIMARS and similar Western systems to smash Russian arms depots and break down its lines of ground communication across the war zone.