Russia Strikes Odesa Port, Stirring Doubts on Deal to Export Grain

ODESA, Ukraine – A series of explosions rocked the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa on Saturday, hitting one of the country’s most important ports less than 24 hours after Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement. ensure the transportation of millions of tons of grain through the Black Sea routes.

The airstrikes raised concerns about Russia’s commitment to the deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey before it could be put into practice. The deal is seen as crucial to increasing global supply after a sharp drop in Ukraine’s grain exports raised concerns about food shortages in poorer nations.

The series of explosions are also grim reminders of Russia’s violent fulcrum in the war five months ago: a signal from Moscow that it could cause destruction on any part of Ukraine at random. , regardless of the military situation on the front lines or diplomatic breakthroughs elsewhere.

While they denounced the attack and called Russia unreliable, Ukrainian officials said they were continuing to prepare as if the grain deal would come into force.

Ukraine’s southern military command said on Saturday that Russian forces had fired four Kalibr cruise missiles at Odesa. “Two missiles were shot down by air defenses, two hitting port infrastructure,” it wrote in a statement posted on its Facebook page. It’s not clear what the attacks targeted and if any grain infrastructure was hit.

If confirmed, the use of the Kalibr cruise missile, a newer weapon that has been armed by the Russians over the past decade, is remarkable: Western intelligence officials have said in recent weeks that Russia’s stockpile of advanced weapons like the Kalibr is running out. .

Condemnation from Ukraine over Saturday’s missile attack was swift. Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesman for the country’s foreign ministry, said on Facebook that with the attacks, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin “spits in the face” of the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres and President Recep Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey after the two “spent a lot of effort to reach this agreement.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, briefed to the delegation from the United States House of Representatives, said the strike “proves only one thing: no matter what Russia says and promises, they will find ways not to deliver. ”

The UN Secretary-General’s deputy spokesman dismissed the strikes, saying in a statement that full implementation of the agreement was “mandatory”.

There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin. The attack comes a day before Russia’s foreign minister is due to begin a tour of Africa, where he is expected to try to shift responsibility for the food shortages to the West.

Explosive waves from the missiles hitting the port could be felt from miles away, although it is unclear exactly where they struck. The huge port stretches for miles along the coast of Odesa with towering silver grain vaults concentrated in a number of different places. The attack, like many long-range attacks against Ukrainian infrastructure, will not be able to halt the overall operation of the port but could draw in the resources needed to repair structures, stamp out fire and search for unexploded bombs and ammunition.

“If you attack a port, you attack everything,” Mykola Solskyi, the country’s agriculture minister, said in a phone interview. “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, as it has not committed to avoiding attacking parts of Ukrainian ports that are not used directly for grain exports, according to a senior United Nations official. country. If there are military targets nearby, Russia may be trying to exploit the loophole, a practice that became increasingly common throughout the war.

Mr. Solskyi said the strikes would affect Ukraine’s grain export efforts, adding that some destroyed infrastructure was “critical to the handling of all imports”. password.”

However, he said, Ukraine will take steps to prepare to finally ship the grain.

“We understand that we are still at war with Russia,” he said. “Our deal is with the United Nations and with Turkey, not with Russia.”

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

The attack on Odesa is linked to a widespread increase in attacks in southern Ukraine in recent weeks as Russian forces rebuild their forces in the east. Russian and Ukrainian forces both conducted long-range weapons strikes south from night into Saturday, apparently targeting supply lines and anti-aircraft weapons behind the front lines of both sides. .

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

Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Minister, said that Russian air strikes caused 10 explosions in Odesa, and attacks on the port caused fires.

Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, condemned the strikes on Saturday, say on Twitter that “the achievement of an important target for grain exports the day after the signing of the Istanbul accord is particularly reprehensible and once again demonstrates Russia’s complete disregard for the law and its commitments. international.”

With no public statement about the attack on the port of Odesa, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told reporters on Saturday that Russia told Turkey it had nothing to do with the attacks on the port. Odesa.

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

Since the start of the war, on February 24, the Port of Odesa has been frozen in time. The steel bales were still stacked on the loading docks ready for transport, and the multicolored cranes sat like giant sleeping birds.

In Odesa, as well as five other major ports in the region, 68 ships, along with some of their crew, ran aground, said Dmytro Barinov, deputy director of Ukraine’s Sea Port Authority. Port authorities provided the sailors with food and allowed them access to bomb shelters when the air raid sirens sounded, he said.

In return, the crew continued to serve the ships.

“You can’t just leave a ship on your own,” Barinov said. “It has to be maintained.

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

So far the city has not been affected by the worst skirmishes. At first, it appeared that Russian forces swept across the Crimean peninsula in the early days of the war to capture Odesa, which President Vladimir V. Putin claims is an important part of Russia’s historic territory. But their advance was thwarted by Ukrainian resistance.

Unable to reach the city, Russian forces resorted to a ranged attack.

Erika Solomon reports from Berlin. Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting from Hope, Maine, and Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed from Brussels.

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