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Ukraine hopeful Black Sea grain shipping is imminent

Ukraine hopes to begin implementing an agreement this week to export millions of tons of grain from blocked ports on the Black Sea, even after Russian missile strikes hit the main Ukrainian port city of Odessa and threatened to unravel the agreement.

Preparations include demining critical areas for maritime traffic and establishing special naval corridors for the safe passage of merchant ships, as well as setting up a coordination center in Istanbul, where the deal, brokered by the UN and Turkey, was signed on Friday.

The plans continue, a Ukrainian official said Monday, despite the strikes in Odessa, which Ukraine previously described as violating Russia’s promise not to attack grain infrastructure and questioning the entire deal. Russia said it was targeting military infrastructure in the port.

“Hopefully it will be implemented in the coming days when the Special Coordination Center in . . . Istanbul,” Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kurbakov said during a briefing on Monday. “Sometime this week, we hope this whole process will start.”

Kurbakov stressed the importance of exports to the Ukrainian economy and described the free export of grain as “a matter of survival” for the Ukrainian agricultural sector, which in turn is the second largest contributor to the country’s economy.

“Under such difficult economic conditions, it is important that Ukraine gets an influx of hard currency by unblocking ports,” he said. He added that it brought in $1 billion a month to the country’s budget, citing the Treasury Department and national banking records.

Since President Vladimir Putin ordered a large-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, the Russian navy has blocked Ukraine’s commercial sea routes, launched missile strikes on its ports and grain storage infrastructure, and attacked civilian grain transport ships.

This left 22 million tons of wheat, maize and other grains trapped in the country, and the conflict put 47 million people worldwide at risk of acute hunger, according to the World Food Program.

The deal should introduce a “de facto ceasefire” under which Ukraine and Russia agree not to attack merchant ships, civilian ships or port facilities covered by the agreement.

But it will be tested by the conflict. Demining the sea routes would also be difficult, Kurbakov noted. Even World War II mines were discovered from time to time, he said. “All ships will be convoyed by Ministry of Infrastructure boats leading the way and it will not be an easy process.”

On a Sunday visit to Egypt, which historically relied on Ukraine and Russia for most of its wheat imports, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought to refute allegations that Russia was “exporting hunger” with its blockade of the Black Sea.

Lavrov also gave further details about the deal, saying that it would be implemented through a coordination center in Istanbul, Ukraine would be “working on mine clearance, leaving the ships in the open sea” and “Russia, Turkey and another participant will be determined, [will] escort the ship to the Bosphorus [Strait].”

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