Russia strikes at Odessa port, raising doubts over grain export deal

Odessa, Ukraine. On Saturday, a series of explosions rocked Odessa in southern Ukraine, hitting one of the country’s most important ports less than 24 hours after Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement on ensure the transit of millions of tons of grain along the Black Sea routes.

The strikes raised concerns about Russia’s commitment to the UN-Turkish brokered deal before it could be put into effect. The deal is seen as critical to bolstering global supplies after a sharp drop in Ukrainian grain exports raised fears of food shortages in poorer countries.

The string of bombings also came as a grim reminder of Russia’s hard-line foothold in the five-month-old war: signals from Moscow that it could arbitrarily unleash destruction on any part of Ukraine, regardless of the military situation on the front lines or diplomatic breakthroughs elsewhere.

While they condemned the attack and called Russia unreliable, Ukrainian officials said they were continuing to prepare for the grain deal to go into effect.

Ukraine’s southern military command said on Saturday that Russian forces had fired four Kalibr cruise missiles at Odesa. “Air defense forces shot down two missiles, two hit port infrastructure facilities,” the message posted on the Facebook page says. It is not clear which targets were hit or if any grain infrastructure was hit.

If true, the use of the Kalibr cruise missile, the latest munition the Russians have put into service in the last decade, is remarkable in itself: Western intelligence officials have said in recent weeks that Russia’s stockpiles of modern weapons like the Kalibr are running out. .

Ukraine condemned Saturday’s missile attack. Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesman for the country’s foreign ministry, said on Facebook that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin “spit in the face” of UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a result of the strikes. after the two “made great efforts to reach this agreement”.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky during a briefing by the delegation of the US House of Representatives, declared that the strike “proves only one thing: whatever Russia says or promises, it will find ways not to carry it out.”

A deputy spokesman for the UN secretary-general condemned the strikes, saying in a statement that full implementation of the agreement was “an imperative.”

And Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken said in a statement that the attack raised “serious doubts about the credibility of Russia’s commitment to yesterday’s deal” and demonstrated “Moscow’s disregard for the safety and security of millions of civilians.”

There were no comments from the Kremlin. The attack came a day before the Russian foreign minister was due to begin a tour of Africa, where he is expected to try to shift the blame for the food shortage to the West.

The blast from the rockets that hit the port could be felt for miles, though it was not clear exactly where they hit. The huge port stretches for miles along the coast of Odessa, and towering silver grain silos are clustered in several different locations. This attack, like many long-range strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure, will do little to stop the port as a whole, but could bring in the necessary resources to repair facilities, put out fires and search for unexploded ordnance.

“If you attack a port, you attack everything,” Nikolai Solsky, the country’s agriculture minister, said in a telephone interview. “You use the same infrastructure for oil, for grain. It affects everything, no matter what you’re in.”

Russia may not have technically violated the grain deal, according to a senior UN official, as it has not pledged to avoid attacks on parts of Ukrainian ports not directly used for grain exports. If there were military installations nearby, Russia may have been trying to exploit a loophole, a practice that became increasingly common as the war progressed.

mr. Solsky said the strikes would nonetheless affect Ukraine’s grain export efforts, adding that some of the destroyed infrastructure was “important to handle all imports.”

But, according to him, Ukraine will continue to prepare for the shipment of grain.

“We understand that we still have a war with Russia,” he said. “Our agreement was with the UN and Turkey, not with Russia.”

This is not the first time Ukraine has accused Russia of failing to fulfill its obligations. Ukraine has repeatedly said that Russia is violating ongoing negotiations on agreed humanitarian evacuation routes for civilians in besieged cities such as Mariupol. In some cases, Russian forces allowed such corridors but kidnapped or imprisoned men of military age who tried to escape.

The strike on Odessa is linked to a wider surge of attacks in southern Ukraine in recent weeks as Russian forces regroup their forces in the east. Russian and Ukrainian forces launched long-range strikes in the south on Saturday night, apparently targeting supply lines and anti-aircraft guns behind the front lines on both sides.

Fighting continues unabated in the east, and on Friday the US State Department confirmed the deaths of two Americans there, but did not name them, citing respect for their families.

Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said Russian strikes caused 10 explosions in Odessa and strikes on the port caused a fire.

Josep Borrell Fontelles, European Union foreign policy chief, condemned the strikes on Saturday. talking on twitter that “strike a target crucial to grain exports one day after the signing of the Istanbul Accords is particularly reprehensible and once again demonstrates Russia’s complete disregard for international law and obligations.”

In the absence of a public statement about the Odessa port attack, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told reporters on Saturday that Russia had told Turkey it had nothing to do with the attacks on Odessa.

However, he said, “The fact that such an incident happened right after the grain deal we made yesterday also worries us very much.”

With the outbreak of war, in Feb. 24, Odessa port is frozen in time. Bales of steel remain stacked on loading docks, ready to be shipped, while multicolored cranes sit motionless like huge slumbering birds.

In Odessa, as well as in five other major ports in the region, 68 ships were stranded along with some members of their crews, said Dmitry Barinov, Deputy Head of the Ukrainian Seaport Administration. The port authority provides food for sailors and allows them access to bomb shelters when air raid sirens sound, he said.

In return, the crews continue to service the ships.

“You cannot leave the ship on your own,” Barinov said. “She needs to be saved.

Founded by Catherine the Great during the heyday of the Russian Empire, Odessa has long been an important economic engine of Ukraine. Before the war, the city served as Ukraine’s most important gateway to the global economy, and the reopening of its port infrastructure is critical to the country’s future financial viability.

So far, the city has been spared the worst of the fighting. Initially, it seemed that Russian troops, thrown out of the Crimean peninsula in the early days of the war, intended to capture Odessa, which President Vladimir Putin calls the most important part of the historical territory of Russia. But their advance was halted by Ukrainian resistance.

Unable to reach the city, the Russian troops resorted to attacking from afar.

Erica Solomon reported from Berlin. Thomas Gibbons-Neff provided reporting from Hope, Maine and Matina Stevis-Gridneff provided material from Brussels.