August 18, 2022
(2nd UPDATE) Despite the strike, Ukraine says it is still preparing to export grain as part of the deal

KYIV, Ukraine – Russian missiles hit Ukraine’s southern port of Odesa on Saturday, July 23, the Ukrainian military said, threatening a landmark deal signed just the day before to unblock grain exports from Black Sea ports and ease global food shortages caused by the war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the strike showed Moscow could not be trusted to implement the deal. However, public broadcaster Suspilne quoted the Ukrainian military as saying the missiles had not caused significant damage and a government minister said preparations continued to restart grain exports from the country’s Black Sea ports.

The deal signed on Friday by Moscow and Kyiv and mediated by the United Nations and Turkey was hailed as a breakthrough after nearly five months of punishing fighting since Russia invaded its neighbor. It is seen as crucial to curbing soaring global food prices by allowing grain exports to be shipped from Black Sea ports including Odesa.

UN officials had said on Friday they hoped the agreement would be operational in a few weeks but it was not yet clear if that would still be possible given Saturday’s strikes.

Two Russian Kalibr missiles hit the area of a pumping station at the Odesa port, while another two missiles were shot down by air defense forces, according to Ukraine’s Operational Command South. Yuriy Ignat, spokesperson for the Ukrainian air force, said the cruise missiles were fired from warships in the Black Sea near Crimea.

Supilne later quoted the spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern military command, Natalia Humeniuk, was quoted as saying the port’s grain storage area was not hit. No casualties have been reported.

Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said on Facebook that “we continue technical preparations for the launch of exports of agricultural products from our ports.”

The cruise missiles were fired from warships in the Black Sea near Crimea, he added.

A Russian defense ministry statement on Saturday outlining progress in the war did not mention any strike in Odesa. The ministry did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment.

The strike appeared to violate the terms of Friday’s deal, which would allow safe passage in and out of Odesa and two other Ukrainian ports.

“This proves only one thing: no matter what Russia says and promises, it will find ways not to implement it,” Zelensky said in a video posted on Telegram.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “unequivocally condemned” the reported strikes, a spokesperson said, adding that all parties had committed to the grain export deal.

“These products are desperately needed to address the global food crisis and ease the suffering of millions of people in need around the globe,” spokesperson Farhan Haq said in a statement.

“Full implementation by the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Turkey is imperative.”

On Friday, Guterres had called the deal “a beacon on the Black Sea.”

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusai Akar said in a statement that “In our contact with Russia, the Russians told us that they had absolutely nothing to do with this attack, and that they were examining the issue very closely and in detail.”

“The fact that such an incident took place right after the agreement we made yesterday really worried us,” he added.

Safe passage

Ukraine has mined waters near its ports as part of its war defenses, but under the deal, pilots will guide ships along safe channels in its territorial waters.

A Joint Coordination Center (JCC) staffed by members of all four parties to the agreement will then monitor ships transitting the Black Sea to Turkey’s Bosphorus strait and off to world markets.

All sides agreed on Friday there would be no attacks on these entities and that it would be the task of JCC to resolve if any prohibited activity is observed.

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Ukraine foreign ministry spokesperson Oleh Nikolenko said on Facebook that “the Russian missile is (Russian President) Vladimir Putin’s spit in the face” of Guterres and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, adding Ukraine was grateful for the lengths they had gone to to reach the agreement.

The foreign ministry called on the United Nations and Turkey to ensure that Russia fulfills its commitments.

The US ambassador to Kyiv, Bridget Brink, called the strike “outrageous,” writing on Twitter, “The Kremlin continues to weaponize food. Russia must be held to account.”

Soaring food prices

A blockade of Ukrainian ports by Russia’s Black Sea fleet since Moscow’s February 24 invasion of its neighbor has trapped tens of millions of tonnes of grain and stranded many ships.

This has worsened global supply chain bottlenecks and, along with Western sanctions on Russia, stoked food and energy price inflation. Russia and Ukraine are major global wheat suppliers, and the war sent food prices soaring. A global food crisis has pushed some 47 million people into “acute hunger,” according to the World Food Programme.

Friday’s deal seeks to avert famine in poorer nations by injecting more wheat, sunflower oil, fertilizer and other products into world markets.

UN officials said on Friday the deal, expected to be fully operational in a few weeks, would restore grain shipments from the three reopened ports to pre-war levels of five million tonnes a month. 

Moscow has denied responsibility for the food crisis, blaming Western sanctions for slowing its own food and fertilizer exports and Ukraine for mining the approaches to its Black Sea ports.

Zelensky said on Friday the deal would make around $10 billion worth of grain available for sale with roughly 20 million tonnes of last year’s harvest to be exported. –

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