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Ukraine’s Seaborne Grain Exports Bounce Back to Near Prewar Levels

The 700-foot Liberian-flagged ship slowly sailed out of the Ukrainian port of Odesa, past rows of yellow cranes and into the still waters of the Black Sea. Its hull was almost completely submerged, weighed down with corn bound for Bangladesh. Offshore, more grain-laden freighters had already left the port, passing vessels about to enter.

It was mid-March in Odesa, and what seemed unimaginable just last summer, when a Russian naval blockade paralyzed all commercial activity, was now a reality. The port was back to its usual hustle and bustle, the result of a military campaign that pushed Russian warships out of Ukrainian waters and secured a shipping route to markets abroad.

The operation has been so successful that Ukraine’s seaborne grain and oilseed exports — an economic lifeline for the war-torn nation — are now approaching prewar levels, according to data shared with The New York Times.

In the past six months, Ukraine has exported 27.6 million metric tons of grain and oilseed through the Black Sea, the country’s main export route, according to figures from the Ukrainian Sea Ports Authority. That is just 0.2 million metric tons short of the average export volume in the same period from 2018 to 2021, before Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022.

In the first quarter of this year, Black Sea grain exports even exceeded prewar levels, according to the Ukrainian data.

Estimates of grain and oilseed exports by Dragon Capital, a Kyiv-based investment firm, and figures on the number of grain ships arriving in Ukrainian ports collected by Lloyd’s List Intelligence, a shipping-data company, point to similar trends.

Sal Gilbertie, the head of Teucrium Trading, a U.S.-based firm that sells securities tied to agricultural commodities on the New York Stock Exchange, said statements by Ukrainian officials that seaborne grain exports were close to prewar levels were “accurate.”

Ukraine still faces a number of challenges that could prevent grain exports from stabilizing at prewar levels, including continued Russian attacks on port facilities and a smaller harvest this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects Ukrainian grain exports to decrease in the near future.

But analysts say that the overall environment has been improving, noting that freight companies are eager to ship Ukrainian grain despite the war. “The data shows that there’s no shortage of shipowners that are willing to take the risk and go in there,” said Greg Miller, a senior maritime reporter for Lloyd’s List.

Ensuring a high flow of grain exports is a strategic necessity for Ukraine. Grain and oilseed accounted for a third of Ukraine’s exports last year, said Natalia Shpygotska, a senior analyst at Dragon Capital. They have become critical to sustaining Ukraine’s war-ravaged economy and, ultimately, its war effort.

Tariel Khajishvili, the head of Novik LLC, a Ukrainian shipping agent operating in Odesa, said that “it’s obvious that without grain exports,” the country’s economy would flounder.

After Russia invaded, Ukraine was forced to stop trade through the Black Sea for several months because of Russia’s military control of the sea, threatening global food security. In July 2022, a deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey allowed Ukraine to resume exports through an agreed upon Black Sea corridor.

But Russia withdrew from the agreement a year later and threatened all commercial vessels heading to and from Ukraine, causing seaborne grain exports to cease last August.

To try to get exports moving again, the Ukrainian military launched a campaign to drive the Russian navy out of parts of the Black Sea, destroying many of its warships and attacking its headquarters in Crimea, the Russian-occupied Ukrainian peninsula. The successful operation allowed Ukraine to establish a new shipping corridor that hugs the Ukrainian coast before taking ships into the territorial waters of NATO members.

Dmytro Barinov, the deputy head of the Ukrainian Sea Ports Authority, recalled that when the first grain ship sailed that corridor in mid-September, “We were very nervous — we prayed that everything would go well.”

Eventually, the ship made it out safely, and soon the “familiar, pleasant sound” of foghorns could be heard again in Odesa, he said.

The number of grain ship arrivals at the three ports of the Odesa region — Odesa itself, Pivdennyi and Chornomorsk — increased to 231 in March from five in September, according to data compiled by Lloyd’s List.

The rise has been helped by deals that Ukraine has brokered with global insurers to provide cover for ships. Mr. Gilbertie, from Teucrium Trading, said that Moscow also had an interest in keeping the fighting from spreading to the Black Sea, as it also uses it to export goods.

Today, Ukraine can use only the ports in the Odesa region to ship its grain by sea, as its other seaports are either too close to Russian lines to operate or are occupied by Russian forces. Even so, with 4.1 million metric tons of grain and oilseed shipped each month on average, the three ports are now close to overall prewar seaborne export volumes.

The reopening of the Odesa ports is a welcome financial boost for Ukraine. Having lost key economic assets in the war — like its metal factories in the east, which were captured or destroyed by Russia — Ukraine is now more dependent on grain exports to support its economy. Dragon Capital estimated in the fall that a return to full operation of the Odesa ports could add several percentage points to Ukraine’s gross domestic product growth this year, which it forecast at 4 percent.

But analysts caution that the initial success of Ukraine’s new shipping route may not last.

Russia continues to target port infrastructure in Odesa, and with Ukraine now facing a shortage of air-defense weapons, more missiles are getting through. In mid-April, Russia successfully hit two food export terminals in Pivdennyi, destroying several containers.

Ms. Shpygotska, from Dragon Capital, also noted that Ukraine’s recent high grain export volumes partly reflected shipments delayed by the Russian naval blockade, meaning that such volumes may not be reached again in the future, especially as grain production is forecast to decline.

“Producers and exporters are now well positioned to export as many crops as available,” she said. “But it all depends on the harvest.”

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