Ukraine announced it will open a “humanitarian corridor” in the Black Sea to release cargo ships trapped in its ports since the outbreak of war, a new test of Russia’s de facto blockade since Moscow abandoned a deal last month to let Kyiv export grain from its sea ports.
At least initially, the corridor, which was announced on Thursday, would apply to vessels such as container ships that have been stuck in Ukrainian ports since the February 2022 invasion by Russian, and were not covered by the deal that opened the ports for grain shipments last year.
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But it could be a considerable test of Ukraine’s ability to reopen sea lanes at a time when Russia is trying to re-impose its de-facto blockade, having abandoned the grain deal last month. Shipping and insurance sources expressed concerns about safety.
Local news outlet The Kyiv Independent reported that Ukraine’s navy has warned that military threats from Russia, as well as sea mines, remain along all shipping routes.
“Only vessels whose owners or captains officially confirm their readiness to sail under such conditions will be allowed to pass through,” the news outlet reported on Thursday.
In a statement, the Ukrainian navy said the routes for the corridor had already been proposed by Ukraine directly to the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
The routes would “primarily be used for civilian ships which have been in the Ukrainian ports of Chornomorsk, Odesa, and Pivdennyi since the beginning of the full-scale invasion by Russia on February 24, 2022”.
“Vessels whose owners/captains officially confirm that they are ready to sail in the current conditions will be allowed to pass through the routes,” the navy said in the statement, adding that risks remained from mines and the military threat from Russia.
“The corridor will be very transparent. We will put cameras on the ships and there will be a broadcast to show that this is purely a humanitarian mission and has no military purpose,” Oleh Chalyk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s navy, told the Reuters news agency.
There was no immediate response to requests for comment from Moscow.
Shipping and insurance sources familiar with Ukraine said they were not informed about the new corridor and there were questions over its viability. It was unlikely most ships would agree to sail at the moment, they said.
“The possibility of multiple seafarer deaths [in the event of a ship being hit] has not been addressed, so this is another major question,” a shipping industry source said.
Approximately 60 commercial ships have been stuck in the Ukrainian ports since Russia’s invasion, their fates unresolved by the deal that allowed grain exports to resume in July last year.
Many of the ships’ crews have been evacuated, leaving locally hired Ukrainian staff to help look after the vessels.
Since abandoning the grain deal, Russia has said it will treat any ships approaching Ukrainian ports as potential military vessels, and their flag countries as combatants on the Ukrainian side.
Kyiv has responded with a similar threat to ships approaching Russian or Russian-held Ukrainian ports.
The United Nations has said Russia’s decision to quit the deal risks worsening a global food crisis, hurting poor countries the worst, by keeping grain from one of the world’s biggest exporters off the market.