Russia attacks Ukrainian grain ports after withdrawing from export deal Ship’s crew

KIEV, July 18 (Reuters) – Russia attacked Ukrainian ports on Tuesday, a day after it pulled out of a United Nations-backed deal allowing Kiev to export grain, and Moscow claimed gains on the ground in an area in that Russian troops, according to Ukrainian officials, were heading back into the offensive.

Russia said it had attacked fuel depots in Odessa and a factory making sea drones, as part of “mass revenge strikes” in retaliation for attacks by Ukraine that destroyed its road bridge to the occupied Crimea peninsula.

Shortly after the bridge was struck on Monday, Moscow withdrew from a year-old United Nations-brokered grain export deal, a move the United Nations says puts the risk of hunger around the world at risk.

Falling debris and blast waves damaged several homes and unspecified port infrastructure in one of Ukraine’s main ports, Odessa, according to the Southern Ukraine Operational Military Command. Local authorities in Mykolaiv, another port, reported a serious fire.

The Russian attacks on ports are “further evidence that the country’s terrorist wants to endanger the lives of 400 million people in different countries who depend on Ukrainian food exports,” said Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine’s presidential staff.

According to the Ukrainian Air Force, six Kalibr missiles and 31 of 36 drones were shot down. Moscow, in turn, said it thwarted a Ukrainian drone strike in Crimea without causing major damage to the ground and reopened a single-lane road on the Crimean Bridge.

Six weeks after Ukraine launched a counteroffensive in the east and south, Russia launches its own ground offensive in the northeast.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said its forces had advanced 2 km (1.2 miles) near Kupyansk, a front-line rail hub that Ukraine recaptured in an offensive last year. Kyiv acknowledged a “complicated” situation in the region. Reuters could not independently verify the situation.

Since Ukraine launched its counter-offensive last month, Kiev has recaptured some villages to the south and areas around the devastated town of Bakhmut to the east, but has yet to attempt a major break through heavily defended Russian lines.

“A Blow for People in Need”

The Black Sea grain export deal negotiated by Turkey and the United Nations a year ago was one of the war’s few diplomatic successes, as it de facto lifted a Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports and averted a global food emergency.

Ukraine and Russia are both among the world’s largest exporters of grain and other food products. Should Ukrainian grain be blocked from the market again, prices could skyrocket around the world, hitting the poorest countries hardest.

“Today’s decision by the Russian Federation will deal a serious blow to people in need everywhere,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday.

Moscow rejected demands from Ukraine to allow shipping to resume without Russian involvement, and the Kremlin openly stated that ships entering the area without its guarantees were in danger.

“We are talking about an area that is close to a war zone,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “Without appropriate safety guarantees, certain risks arise there. So if something is formalized without Russia, these risks should be taken into account.”

Russia says it can return to the grain deal, but only if its calls for an easing of rules on its own food and fertilizer exports are met. Western countries are calling this an attempt to influence the food supply in order to force an easing of financial sanctions that already allow Russia to sell food.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for the grain deal to continue without Russia, effectively seeking Turkey’s support for lifting the Russian blockade. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, the deal’s sponsor, says he believes Moscow can be persuaded to return.

Any attempt to resume Ukrainian grain shipments without Russia’s involvement would depend on insurance companies agreeing to provide coverage. Industry sources have told Reuters they are considering the impact.

SLOW COUNTER-OFFENSIVE

Russia’s claim on Tuesday that it had advanced around Kupiansk was a rare sign that Moscow was trying to get back on the offensive since Kiev launched its counteroffensive last month.

Both sides have suffered heavy casualties in Europe’s bloodiest battle since World War II, but the frontlines have shifted only gradually since last November, despite a massive Russian winter offensive followed by a Ukrainian counterattack.

“For two days in a row the enemy has been actively on the offensive in the Kupiansk sector in the Kharkiv region,” Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar wrote on Telegram.

“We defend. Fierce battles are taking place and the positions of both sides are changing dynamically several times a day.”

Oleksander Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, described the situation in the area as “complicated but under control”. Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Forces Group, said the Russian military has deployed more than 100,000 troops and more than 900 tanks in the region.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive has met with limited success near Bakhmut and along two major axes to the south, but its assault forces, armed with billions of dollars worth of new Western weapons and ammunition, have yet to face Russia’s main line of defense.

Kyiv says it is deliberately advancing slowly to avoid heavy casualties on the landmine-ridden fortified defense lines and is focusing for now on weakening Russia’s logistics and leadership. Moscow says Ukrainian counteroffensive has failed.

(Reporting by Reuters offices, text by Peter Graff, editing by Angus MacSwan and Alex Richardson)

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2023.

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