Cargo Ship Travels From Port of Odesa in Test of Ukraine’s New Black Sea Corridor

A civilian cargo ship that has been stuck in Odesa since the start of the war set off early Wednesday morning, becoming the first to venture out of the port into the turbulent waters of the Black Sea since Moscow threatened all ships moving to and from Ukraine.

The move is part of Ukrainian efforts to restore seaport traffic despite a de facto Russian blockade. Kyiv’s efforts to resume exports of grain and other goods raise the stakes for Ukraine’s allies, as an attack or other episode could draw other nations whose ships travel the waters into the conflict.

Establishing a safe path for the small number of internationally flagged ships stranded in Ukrainian ports for 18 months would mark a milestone, but Ukraine also hopes it will be a demonstration that Russia does not dominate the sea and that shipping to Ukrainian seaports can be resumed.

“The fact that the first ship left the port is a little victory for Ukraine,” said Andriy Klymenko, the director of the Institute for Strategic Black Sea Studies, a Ukrainian research organization. “Let the first one be a lucky one.”

The nearly 1,000-foot-long container ship Joseph Schulte, which flies under the flag of Hong Kong and has been stranded in Odesa since arriving there the day before Russia launched its full-scale invasion some 18 months ago, set a course to Istanbul using a corridor in Ukrainian territorial waters established by the Ukrainian ministry of infrastructure for civilian vessels.

In establishing the corridor, the Ukrainian navy said that it could assure ships safe passage through a maze of maritime mines they have installed to protect the Ukrainian coast. But it could offer no assurances of protection from Russian mines and warships.

Once they leave Ukrainian waters, ships would be able to chart a course to Turkey within the national waters of Romania and Bulgaria, which are members of NATO and under the alliance’s protection.

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, a company with headquarters in Germany that owns the ship in partnership with a Chinese bank, said in a statement that all the crew was safe as it departed Ukraine with 2,000 containers full of goods on board. It is not clear exactly what the ship is carrying, but it was not designed to carry grain.

The movement of the ship is being tracked in real time by maritime monitoring services. By early afternoon it was moving from Ukrainian waters toward Romanian coastal waters.

The last time a civilian ship left a Ukrainian seaport through the Black Sea was on July 16, the day before the Kremlin suspended its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, an internationally brokered deal that allowed tens of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain to be exported.

Since then, the Black Sea has become a cauldron of military and geopolitical tensions. Russia has launched sustained attacks on both Ukrainian ports and grain infrastructure.

Ukrainian and Western officials have accused Moscow of trying to intimidate international shipping companies from traveling to Ukrainian ports through threats and provocations. This weekend, Russia for the first time forcibly intercepted and boarded a civilian ship traveling to a Ukrainian port. Analysts said the ship, the Sukru Okan, was in international waters.

The Russians “are testing the ambition of the NATO bloc itself, how far they can go in their provocations,” Col. Petro Chernyk, an analyst in the Ukrainian military, told a news conference after the episode.

Russia has maintained a de facto naval blockade on Ukraine’s seaports since the start of the war, though it allowed a limited number of ships to participate in the effort to export grain for about a year. Kyiv has been able to use small ports on the Danube River as a lifeline to export grain and other goods.

The first step in demonstrating the safety of the new corridor, Ukrainian officials said, would be to enable a handful of ships stuck in the Ukrainian ports of Chornomorsk, Odesa, and Pivdennyi to leave.

Dozens of ships stranded at ports in Mykolaiv and Kherson ports would remain there as the route for them to exit the Dnipro River delta was too dangerous for navigation.

Marc Santora has been reporting from Ukraine since the beginning of the war with Russia. He was previously based in London as an international news editor focused on breaking news events and earlier the bureau chief for East and Central Europe, based in Warsaw. He has also reported extensively from Iraq and Africa. More about Marc Santora

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