Ukraine seeks to restore Black Sea shipping despite Russian threats


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The passage of a cargo ship from Ukraine to Turkey this week vindicated Kyiv’s gamble that Russia would not act on threats to attack commercial shipping in the Black Sea.

But the successful gambit leaves a bigger question for Ukraine: will any other commercial vessels follow the Joseph Schulte and dare to call Russia’s bluff?

The German/Chinese-owned cargo ship was the first vessel to make the journey out of Ukrainian waters since July, when Russia warned it would consider any civilian vessel leaving Ukraine’s ports as military targets.

Its daring journey was an attempt to show Ukraine could carve out a safe corridor across the Black Sea that was resilient enough to keep its exports flowing despite Russian belligerence.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the ship’s voyage as an “important step towards restoring the freedom of navigation in the Black Sea”. Last week, Kyiv announced it was seeking to set up a “humanitarian” corridor in the Black Sea allowing cargo ships to leave its ports safely. But analysts said commercial shipping, on a significant scale, was unlikely to be restored without Russia’s agreement.

The Joseph Schulte’s arrival in Istanbul on Friday after a two-day voyage from Odesa where it had been moored since February 2022 followed weeks of rising tensions over the shipping lanes. Ukraine issued threats to hit vessels heading to Russian ports — and targeted a Russian oil tanker in August — while Russia fired warning shots at a Turkish vessel heading for a Ukrainian port on the Danube river.

Even so, Ukraine proceeded with its experiment, confident that its onshore defence systems — with a range of about 100 nautical miles — could deter Russia’s navy from mounting an assault.

While travelling through Ukrainian waters the Joseph Schulte kept within this corridor, which Ukraine calls its “zone of destruction” [for hostile Russian ships], according to Dmytro Pletenchuk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s navy. Ukrainian anti-ship rocket launchers are lined up along the coast to defend against any naval attacks within their range.

“All we can do is propose what we think is the safest route to shipowners and captains,” said Pletenchuk. He said the Russian forces couldn’t hit the Joseph Schulte because “they are very restricted”. “If they come any closer we will sink them,” said Pletenchuk.

The Joseph Schulte followed the Ukrainian coastline within that corridor, before entering the waters of Romania, then Bulgaria and Turkey — three Nato members which make it harder for Russia to engage in any hostilities.

The vessel carried 30,000 tonnes of cargo, including foodstuffs. Its owners declined to comment on any specifics regarding the voyage and stressed that container vessel “is not a grain carrier”.

Wheat prices fell after it left Ukraine’s waters but Carlos Mera, head of agri commodities market research at Rabobank in London, said it was unlikely to be the only factor in the “extremely volatile” market.

Evidence of other vessels successfully picking up cargo from Ukraine, rather than just leaving its waters, could bring down prices, Mera said. But this remained “very unlikely” without agreement from Russia.

“I don’t think we should read this a sign of the corridor being reinstated without Russia agreeing to it,” said Mera. “Russia was willing to bomb Odesa the day after they cancelled the corridor. So I think it will not attract commercial vessels into Odesa in the foreseeable future.”

Ships traversing the Black Sea must do so at their own peril, but once they reach the Turkish Straits, they can expect normal peacetime operations, according to an official in the Turkish defence ministry. The official added that Ankara was continuing to negotiate for a renewal of the Black Sea grain agreement.

Ukrainian analysts said the latest route — if it became operational — was more efficient as it bypassed the Russian inspections that ships went through under the UN-Turkey grain deal brokered in August 2022.

Ships were held up for weeks and sometimes over a month to allow Russian representatives of the deal to search the vessels. “They inspected six to three, sometimes just one ship a day,” said Elizaveta Malyshko, a grain market analyst at UkrAgroConsult. “Now, there are no queues.” The delays were costing Ukraine’s agricultural companies and farmers thousands of dollars per day.

But any commercial vessel attempting the journey must test the resolve of the Russia’s navy component in the Black Sea, which according to Ukraine has almost 50 battle ships and submarines as well as 20 patrol boats. Ukraine says it has damaged about eight battle ships.

The Ukrainian ministry of infrastructure did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how many cargo ships were still moored in Odesa awaiting safe departure.

Despite the Joseph Schulte’s successful journey, major shipping groups and exporters remain wary of travelling through the Black Sea.

“It’s just getting more and more complicated,” said an executive at one large grain trader, pointing to recent attacks on the Odesa and a Russian port.

“It’s quite scary I have to say . . . It’s difficult to get insurance, difficult to get [shipowners] to go . . . Nobody knows what’s really happening on board those ships.”

Additional reporting by Harry Dempsey and Oliver Telling in London and Adam Samson in Istanbul

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Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes health, sport, tech, and more. Some of her favorite topics include the latest trends in fitness and wellness, the best ways to use technology to improve your life, and the latest developments in medical research.

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