KYIV, Ukraine – Russia on Tuesday issued a veiled warning over the future of grain exports via the Black Sea, after Moscow refused to extend a key agreement to allow safe passage for cargo ships from Ukrainian ports.
The caution came hours after Ukraine said a Russian strike overnight had damaged facilities at the Odesa port in southern Ukraine, a transit hub key to grain pact signed with the UN and Turkey.
“Without appropriate security guarantees, certain risks arise here,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Were a new arrangement to allow for exports “formalised without Russia, then these risks should be taken into account”, Peskov said.
But Peskov put Moscow’s position in starker terms when he said the Ukraine was using the Black Sea export corridor “for combat purposes.”
Russia later told Turkey that the coordination centre overseeing the deal would be disbanded in the wake of Moscow’s exit, and that Moscow was lifting security guarantees in the Black Sea.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan that Russia’s decision to quit the deal meant “the withdrawal” of navigation safety guarantees in the Black Sea and “the dissolution of the Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul,” according to a statement.
– Retaliation strike –
Moscow said its strike on Odesa was in retaliation for a Ukrainian attack one day earlier on the Crimea bridge, a key transit artery linking Russia’s mainland to the peninsula annexed by Russian in 2014.
Russian forces struck “facilities where terrorist acts against Russia had been prepared using unmanned boats” similar to the ones said to have been used in the bridge strike, the army said in a statement.
Kyiv’s military earlier said it had “destroyed” six Kalibr missiles and 21 Iran-built attack drones targeted at the Odesa region, but that port facilities were damaged in an assault overnight.
“Unfortunately, the debris of the downed missiles and the blast wave from the downing damaged the port infrastructure facilities and several private homes,” Ukraine’s military southern command said in a statement.
Across the country, Ukraine’s air force said 31 of the 36 drones launched by Russia overnight were destroyed before they reached their targets.
The Odesa region is home to the maritime terminals central to the export deal between Moscow and Kyiv that has enabled the shipment of more than 32 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain over the past year.
Moscow’s invasion last year saw Ukraine’s Black Sea ports blocked by warships until the agreement — brokered by the UN and Turkey and signed in July 2022 — allowed critical grain shipments to restart.
The Kremlin said it was exiting the deal on Monday, after months of complaining that elements of the agreement allowing the export of Russian food and fertilisers had not been honoured.
Russia’s decision to quit the grain accord provoked an outraged response from the international community, with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warning millions of the world’s poorest would “pay the price”.
The deal has helped the UN World Food Programme bring relief to countries facing critical food shortages such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Yemen.
President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday said Ukraine was nonetheless prepared to keep exporting grain via the Black Sea despite Russia’s exit.
Kyiv’s navy and SBU security service were behind the bridge attack, using seaborne drones to strike the key link between Russia and annexed Crimea, a security service source told AFP.
– ‘Like one long day’ –
While Kyiv has launched a counteroffensive to punch through the Russian lines, Moscow’s forces have also sought to make their own gains, pounding Ukrainian positions close in the eastern town of Lyman.
“The last month has been like one long day for us,” 23-year-old Ukrainian soldier “Admin” told AFP at a site close to the point of Russia’s main advance in the past few weeks.
“In terms of morale, we are hanging tough. We just want victory to come as soon as possible.”
With its assault near Lyman, Russia hopes to force the Ukrainians to redeploy their forces and abandon their drive to retake captured cities such as Bakhmut.
Further to the north, the Russian military said Tuesday it had advanced 1.5 kilometres along a limited section of front near the city of Kupyansk.
Ukraine had stockpiled Western weapons ahead of the highly anticipated fightback against the Russian troops.
But it has acknowledged slow progress and called on the United States and other allies to provide more long-range weapons and artillery.
Kyiv’s counteroffensive has brightened the mood villagers who support Ukrainian soldiers in the areas bearing the brunt of the new Russian charge.
“They have no idea why they are fighting,” 53-year-old factory worker Valentyna Omelchenko from Zakitne told AFP.
“You look at the ones we have captured, and they are just little frightened kids.”