A headquarters that will coordinate the trade of millions of tons of trapped grain out of Ukraine was formally unveiled in Istanbul on Wednesday, just days after a landmark deal was agreed to resume shipments that have been blocked by the war.
Russia and Ukraine signed identical agreements last Friday with the United Nations and Turkey in Istanbul aimed at providing safe corridors for ships going in and out of three Ukrainian Black Sea ports that have been blocked by Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion.
The joint coordination center (JCC) will oversee departures from ports of Odessa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny in which ships must circumvent mines, and will conduct inspections of incoming ships for weapons. All vessels pass through Turkish waters.
Unveiling the center, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said preparations were ongoing for the first ships to leave Ukrainian ports.
Ukrainian, U.N. and Turkish officials have all expressed hope that the first vessels would depart one of the Black Sea ports in a few days. But they have also said it could take two weeks for all three ports to become operational again.
The war has wreaked havoc on global trade, stranding over 100 ships in Ukraine’s many ports.
The goal over the next months is to get more than 20 million tons of wheat and other grain out of silos in Ukraine and ship them across the Black Sea to millions of impoverished people worldwide who are facing hunger.
The entire operation, including the scheduling of ships along the route, will be monitored from the center staffed by officials from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the U.N.
“The staff working at this center are aware that the eyes of the world are upon them,” Akar told reporters in his opening address.
“It is our hope that the center will make the greatest contribution possible to humanitarian needs and peace.”
Getting wheat and other food out is critical to farmers in Ukraine, who are running out of storage capacity as they harvest their fields. Those grains are vital to millions of people in Africa, parts of the Middle East and South Asia, who are already facing food shortages and, in some cases, famine.
Ukraine and Russia are key global suppliers of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil, with fighting in the Black Sea region, known as the “breadbasket of the world,” pushing up food prices, threatening political stability in developing nations and leading countries to ban some food exports, worsening the crisis.
Akar said that one-third of the world’s wheat supply came from Russia and Ukraine.
U.N. estimates say nearly 50 million people began to face “acute hunger” around the world as a direct consequence of the war.
Wheat prices fell sharply hours after the grain deal was signed. But a Russian missile strike on the port of Odessa on Saturday just hours after the signing put the agreement under renewed doubt.