Russia strikes Odesa port, stirring doubts on deal to export grain

By Michael Schwirtz and Erika Solomon

ODESA — A string of explosions rocked Ukraine’s southern city of Odesa on Saturday (23), hitting one of the country’s most important ports less than 24 hours after Russia and Ukraine signed a deal to secure the transit of millions of tons of grain through Black Sea routes.

The strikes raised concerns about Russia’s commitment to the agreement, which was brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, before it could even be put into action. The deal is seen as critical for shoring up global supplies after a steep drop in Ukrainian grain exports raised fears of food shortages in poorer nations.

The string of explosions were also grim reminders of Russia’s violent fulcrum of the 5-month-old war: signals from Moscow that it can rain destruction on any part of Ukraine at random, no matter the military situation on the front lines or diplomatic breakthroughs elsewhere.

While they denounced the attack and labelled Russia untrustworthy, Ukrainian officials said they were continuing to prepare as if the grain deal would go into effect.

Ukraine’s southern military command said Saturday that Russian forces had fired four Kalibr cruise missiles at Odesa. “Two rockets were shot down by air defence forces, two hit port infrastructure facilities,” it wrote in a statement posted on its Facebook page. It was unclear what the strikes were targeting and whether any grain infrastructure was hit.

If confirmed, the use of the Kalibr cruise missile, a newer piece of ordnance fielded by the Russians in the past decade, is notable on its own: Western intelligence officials have said in recent weeks that Russia’s stockpile of advanced weapons like the Kalibr was dwindling.

The condemnation from Ukraine of Saturday’s missile strike was swift. Oleg Nikolenko, spokesperson for the country’s foreign ministry, said on Facebook that with the strikes, President Vladimir Putin of Russia had “spit in the face” of UN Secretary-General António Guterres and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey after the two “expended enormous effort to reach this agreement.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, briefing a delegation from the US House of Representatives, said the strike “proves only one thing: No matter what Russia says and promises, it will find ways not to implement it.’’

Guterres’ deputy spokesperson denounced the strikes, saying in a statement that full implementation of the agreement was “imperative.”

And Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the attack cast “serious doubt on 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 was no immediate comment from the Kremlin. The attack came a day before the Russian foreign minister was slated to start a tour of Africa, where he is expected to try to shift blame for food shortages to the West.

The blast wave from the missiles hitting the port could be felt miles away, although it was unclear precisely where they struck. The huge port sprawls for miles along Odesa’s coast with towering silver grain silos clustered in several places. The attack, like many long-range strikes that have targeted Ukrainian infrastructure, will do little to stop the port’s overall operations but could draw needed resources to repair structures, put out fires and sweep for unexploded munitions.

“If you attack a port, you attack everything,” said Mykola Solskyi, the country’s agriculture minister. “You use a lot of the same infrastructure for oil, for grain. It has an impact on everything — it doesn’t matter what you hit.”

Russia may not have technically violated the grain deal, since it did not pledge to avoid attacking the parts of the Ukrainian ports that are not directly used for the grain exports, according to a senior UN official. If there were military targets nearby, Russia may have been trying to exploit a loophole, a practice that has become increasingly common over the course of the war.

Solskyi said that the strikes would nevertheless affect Ukraine’s efforts to export grain, adding that some of the infrastructure destroyed was “important for processing all imports.”

But, he said, Ukraine would proceed with preparations for eventually shipping the grain.

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

This is not the first time Ukraine has accused Russia of not honouring its commitments. Ukraine has repeatedly asserted that Russia violates ongoing negotiations on agreed humanitarian evacuation routes for civilians in besieged cities, such as Mariupol. In some cases, Russian forces have allowed such corridors but abducted or imprisoned men of military age trying to flee.

The strike on Odesa is linked to a broader uptick in attacks in Ukraine’s south in recent weeks as Russian forces reconstitute their forces in the east. Russian and Ukrainian forces both launched strikes with long-range weapons in the south overnight into Saturday, apparently aiming for supply lines and anti-aircraft weapons behind the front lines on both sides.

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

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

Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, condemned the strikes Saturday, saying on Twitter that “striking a target crucial for grain export a day after the signature of Istanbul agreements is particularly reprehensible & again demonstrates Russia’s total disregard for international law & commitments.”

Absent a public statement about the attack on the Odesa port, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar told reporters Saturday that Russia told Turkey it had nothing to do with the strikes on Odesa.

Still, he said, “The fact that such an incident happened right after the grain deal we made yesterday has really worried us, too.’’

Since the war began, on Feb. 24, the Port of Odesa has been frozen in time. Bales of steel remain stacked on loading docks ready for shipping, and multi-coloured cranes sit inert like huge slumbering birds.

In Odesa, as well as the five other major ports in the region, 68 vessels have been stranded, along with some of their crew members, said Dmytro Barinov, deputy head of the Ukrainian Sea Port Authority. The port authority has been providing the sailors with food and allowing them access to bomb shelters when air raid sirens sounds, he said.

In return, the crews continue to service the ships.

“You can’t leave a vessel by itself,” Barinov said. “It must be maintained.”

Founded by Catherine the Great at the height of the Russian Empire, Odesa has long been a crucial economic driver for Ukraine. Before the war, the city was Ukraine’s most important outlet to the global economy, and reopening its port infrastructure is crucial for the country’s future financial viability.

So far the city has been spared the worst of the fighting. Initially, it appeared that Russian forces spilling out of the Crimean Peninsula in the early days of the war were intent on seizing Odesa, which Putin claims as a crucial part of Russia’s historical territory. But their advance was blunted by Ukrainian resistance.

Unable to reach the city, Russian forces have resorted to attacking it from afar.

-New York Times



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