Ukraine’s plans to establish a temporary Black Sea trade corridor have received a boost with the arrival of a handful of commercial vessels, but experts have cast doubts on the war-torn country’s ability to meaningfully grow exports under the arrangement.

In recent days, a second wave of cargo ships has reached Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, having sailed via a passage established by Ukraine’s navy following the collapse of a UN-brokered deal with Russia in July.

Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine’s minister for communities, territories and infrastructure development, wrote on the social media platform X that the trio of bulk carriers, Azara, Ying Hao 01 and Eneida, would export 127,000 tonnes of agriproducts and iron ore to buyers in China, Egypt and Spain.

The arrival of the ships follows the successful loading and departure of two other vessels at the port of Chornomorsk last week, which collectively loaded a total of 20,000 tonnes of Ukrainian wheat destined for Egypt and Asia.

The development highlights an evolution in Kyiv’s Black Sea corridor, which hugs the coasts of Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria and was initially established in August to facilitate the safe departure of vessels that had been trapped in Ukrainian ports – namely Chornomorsk, Odesa and Pivdennyi – since early 2022.

But significant dangers remain for ships looking to traverse the Black Sea enroute to Ukraine. And, according to analysts, Ukraine’s export volumes under the initiative will likely be constrained in the months ahead.

“In no way is this the same type of activity, in terms of volume and frequency,” says Frédéric Denèfle, president of the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI), in reference to the previous Black Sea grain agreement. “Very few shipowners are prepared to use the corridor,” he adds.

Insurance remains a key sticking point for shippers who are currently unable to secure war cover for Black Sea voyages, he tells GTR, while finding crews willing to sail into a battle zone is another major challenge.

While Russia is unlikely to risk a diplomatic incident by firing upon a cargo ship, Denèfle says, he notes that accidents are possible, and that there are sizeable commercial risks involved given Moscow’s push to destroy Ukrainian Black Sea infrastructure.

“If local structures are not able to deliver as agreed according to your contractual plan… then you have a problem. Your vessel could be stuck outside the port for days, or weeks, with the fear of being bombed.”

On September 25, Russia launched yet another assault on Odesa, firing drones and missiles at the Black Sea port, reportedly causing significant damage to granaries and the port itself.

There are hopes, however, that Ukraine and Russia could reboot their Black Sea grain deal by the end of the year.

Under the previous agreement, more than 1,000 ships loaded with grain and other foodstuffs left Ukraine’s ports over a 12-month period, averaging about 20 vessels a week. As of July 2023, almost 33 million tonnes of grain and foodstuffs had been exported via the Black Sea Grain Initiative, according to the EU .

Tan Albayrak, an associate at law firm Reed Smith, says he anticipates a new pact between Russia and Ukraine will be reached in the “coming months”.

“The fact of the matter is, neither Russia nor the West is happy with the current situation,” with Ukraine currently unable to ramp up wheat exports and Russia cut out of the global financial system, he tells GTR.

“It would not be surprising if UN proposals met at least some of Russia’s demands, such as providing the Russian Agricultural Bank with Swift access,” Albayrak says.

When Moscow pulled out of the Black Sea arrangement in July, Russia’s foreign ministry said it would only consider restoring the deal if western governments exempted the country’s fertilisers and food from sanctions, arguing that such exports were still being hampered by payments, insurance and logistics issues.

Ukrainian grain has also sparked political tension in the EU, with Ukraine having ramped up food exports over land – through five main Eastern Europe markets – due to plunging Black Sea exports.

Earlier this month, Kyiv filed a complaint at the World Trade Organization against Hungary, Poland and Slovakia after they banned Ukrainian grain and other food imports amid fears low prices would undercut their farmers. Slovakia and Ukraine have since found a resolution and agreed a licensing system for trading grain.