KYIV, Ukraine — Russian drones pounded grain storage facilities and ports along the Danube River that Ukraine has increasingly relied on as an alternative transport route to Europe, after Moscow broke off a key wartime shipping agreement using the Black Sea.
At the same time, a loaded container ship stranded at the Black Sea port of Odesa since Russia’s full-scale invasion more than 17 months ago set sail along a temporary corridor established by Ukraine for merchant shipping.
Ukraine’s economy, crunched by the war, is heavily dependent on farming. Its agricultural exports, like those of Russia, are also crucial for world supplies of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other food that developing nations rely on.
A month ago, the Kremlin tore up an agreement brokered last summer by the U.N. and Turkey to ensure safe Ukraine grain exports through the Black Sea. Since then, Kyiv has sought to reroute transport through the Danube and road and rail links into Europe. But transport costs that way are much higher, some European countries have balked at the consequences for local grain prices, and the Danube ports can’t handle the same volume as seaports.
Odesa Gov. Oleh Kiper said the primary targets of Russia’s overnight drone bombardment were port terminals and grain silos, including at the ports in the Danube delta. Air defenses managed to intercept 13 drones over Odesa and Mykolaiv regions, according to the Ukraine Air Force’s morning update.
It was the latest attack amid weeks of aerial strikes as Russia has targeted the Danube delta ports, which are only about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the border with Romania, a NATO member. The Danube is Europe’s second-longest river and a key transport route.
Meanwhile, the container ship departing Odesa was the first vessel to set sail since July 16, according to Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister. It had been stuck in Odesa since February 2022.
The Hong Kong-flagged Joseph Schulte was traveling down a temporary corridor that Ukraine asked the International Maritime Organization to ratify. The United States has warned that the Russian military is preparing for possible attacks on civilian shipping vessels in the Black Sea.
Sea mines also make the voyage risky, and ship insurance costs are likely to be high for operators. Ukraine told the IMO it would would “provide guarantees of compensation for damage.”
Analysts say Black Sea shipping has in general remained steady since the end of the grain deal, despite higher insurance rates, but shipments out of Ukraine have dropped off.
Last Sunday, a Russian warship fired warning shots at a Palau-flagged cargo ship in the southern Black Sea. According to Russia’s Defense Ministry, the Sukru Okan was heading northwards to the Ukrainian Danube River port of Izmail.
Ship-tracking data analyzed by The Associated Press confirmed that the Joseph Schulte was steaming south.
The Joseph Schulte is carrying more than 30,000 tons of cargo, with 2,114 containers, including food products, according to Kubrakov.
He said the corridor will be primarily used to evacuate ships stuck in the Ukrainian ports of Chornomorsk, Odesa and Pivdennyi since the outbreak of war.
Wheat prices climbed more than 5% in Chicago trading Wednesday amid Russia’s attacks, which have caused grain prices to zigzag on global markets.
Prices for global food commodities like wheat, rice and vegetable oil rose in July after months of declines, following the end of the grain deal and India’s restrictions on some rice exports, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said.
The Joseph Schulte was the highest value ship of the 60 still stuck in Ukraine since the war began, according to John Stawpert, senior manager of environment and trade for the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents 80% of the world’s commercial fleet.
He noted that China’s political closeness to Russia likely helped enable the ship’s departure. It is unlikely other vessels will follow, he said, either because of their flags or locations in Ukraine.
On the war’s front line, Ukrainian officials claimed another milestone in Kyiv’s grinding counteroffensive, with Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar saying troops have retaken a village in the eastern Donetsk region.
The village of Urozhaine is near Staromaiorske, a hamlet that Ukraine also claimed to have recaptured recently. The claims could not be independently verified.
Ukraine appears to be trying to drive a wedge between Russian forces in the south, but it is up against strong defensive lines and is advancing without air support.
Elsewhere, an 18-year-old civilian was killed and four others were injured by Russian shelling of the southeastern Ukraine town of Mezhova, local authorities said.
Also Wednesday, the Russian military said it shot down three drones over the Kaluga region southwest of Moscow and blamed the attack on Ukraine. No damage or casualties were reported.
It was not possible to verify the sides’ battlefield claims.
Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin said Wednesday that about 45,000 of the Russian capital’s residents are fighting in Ukraine — some 20,000 as draftees, 20,000 as contract soldiers and volunteers and an estimated 5,000 are fighting with private groups. In late July, he said about 30,000 Muscovites were in the war. The discrepancy in the figures could not be explained.
Sobyanin said the Muscovites’ presence is “a significant part of those who are there.” The total number of Russian troops in Ukraine is not known, but the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War has estimated the number at about 300,000.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Courtney Bonnell in London contributed to this report.