Ukraine wants ships to keep exporting its grain despite Russian attacks. Some are interested

July 22, 2023  -LONDON (AP) — Russia has repeatedly fired missiles and drones at Ukrainian ports key to sending grain to the world. Moscow has declared large swaths of the Black Sea dangerous for shipping. Even the U.S. said ships are at risk of being targeted.

There is still interest from ship owners in carrying Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea — if they can mitigate the risk, according to a major shipping group. And that’s a big if.

Despite the warnings and port attacks, which have leveled grain infrastructure, “shipping has always been very, very resilient in the face of these sorts of risks,” said John Stawpert, senior manager of environment and trade for the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents 80% of the world’s commercial fleet.

This week’s strikes came after Russia pulled out of a wartime accord that the U.N. and Turkey brokered last year to provide safeguards for shipping companies in a bid to end a global food crisis. Ukraine — which, along with Russia, is a major supplier of wheat, barley and vegetable oil to developing nations — shipped 32.9 million metric tons of grain to the world and supplied 80% of the World Food Program’s wheat for humanitarian aid so far this year.

Following the grain deal’s collapse, Ukraine sent a letter to the U.N. International Maritime Organization establishing its own temporary shipping corridor, saying it would “provide guarantees of compensation for damage.”

But Russia warned this week that ships traversing parts of the Black Sea would assume to be carrying weapons to Ukraine. In a seeming tit-for-tat move, Ukraine said vessels heading to Russian Black Sea ports would be considered “carrying military cargo with all the associated risks.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin said Friday that the navy will check vessels to ensure they are not carrying weapons before taking other action.

Continued shipments from Ukraine will depend on vessels getting insurance for potential damage or injuries and deaths to crew members and how the safety risks play out. Ships that were exporting Ukrainian grain can be worth tens of millions of dollars, have 20 to 22 sailors on board and carry food also worth tens of millions, according to Jayendu Krishna, deputy head of maritime advisers at Drewry, a maritime research consultancy.

All ships go through threat assessments to allow crews to protect against problems before setting sail, which have grown in importance as ships deal with piracy, terrorism and war zones.

For the Black Sea, the risks for ships would be: explosive mines, becoming collateral damage at ports or being targeted themselves, which Stawpert said would be “a huge escalation.”

“The million-dollar question is whether the threats to merchant shipping are serious and whether they’ll be followed through. And there’s no firm way of knowing that until it actually happens,” Stawpert said, adding that he has not yet heard from insurers.

With Russia’s warnings, “it is unlikely that underwriters will want to cover that risk,” said the International Union of Marine Insurance, which represents national and international marine insurers.

The group thought it was unlikely owners would put their ships and crews in danger, echoed by Munro Anderson, head of operations for Vessel Protect, which assesses war risks at sea and provides insurance with backing from Lloyd’s, whose members make up the world’s largest insurance marketplace.

He didn’t directly speak to whether underwriting businesses like his would take on the risk but said without protections for ships like they had under the grain deal, “safety conditions cannot be guaranteed.”

Krishna said the only way to mitigate risk was through insurance from the 12 providers making up the International Group of P&I Clubs, which offers liability coverage for about 90% of the world’s cargo shipped by sea, according to its website.

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