Russia bombs Ukrainian ports, threatens ships and shakes world grain markets Ship’s crew

MYKOLAIV/NEAR KUPIANSK, Ukraine, July 20 (Reuters) – Russia shook world grain markets with an escalation in the Black Sea, carried out airstrikes on Ukrainian ports for the third straight day and issued a threat against ships bound for Ukraine, targeting Kiev responded in kind.

At least 27 civilians were reportedly injured in the airstrikes on the ports that set fire to buildings and damaged the Chinese consulate in Odessa.

The United States said Russia’s warning to ships suggested Moscow could attack ships at sea after Moscow this week withdrew from a United Nations-brokered deal that allowed Ukraine to export grain. Signals that Russia was ready to use force to re-impose its blockade on one of the world’s largest food exporters sent world prices soaring.

Moscow says it will not take part in the year-long grain deal without getting better terms for its own food and fertilizer sales. According to the United Nations, Russia’s decision jeopardizes the food security of the world’s poorest people.

Kiev hopes to resume exports without Russia’s involvement. But since Moscow pulled out of the deal on Monday, no ships have left its ports and insurers have had doubts about writing policies for trade in a war zone.

Moscow has been firing rockets at Ukraine’s two largest port cities, Odessa and Mykolaiv, every night since it withdrew from the deal. Thursday’s strikes appeared to be the worst yet.

Odessa Region Governor Oleh Kiper posted online a picture of the Chinese consulate building with broken windows. It is located in the city center of Odessa, directly opposite the railway tracks from the port.

“The attacker is targeting the port infrastructure – administrative and residential buildings nearby were damaged, including the consulate of the People’s Republic of China. It shows that the enemy isn’t paying attention,” Kiper said on Telegram.

In Mykolaiv, firefighters battled a major blaze in a pink-plastered apartment building that was blown up into ruins. Several other residential buildings were also damaged there.

Moscow has described the port attacks as revenge for a Ukrainian attack on Russia’s bridge to Crimea on Monday. On Thursday it was said that retaliatory strikes would continue and that all targets in Odessa and Mykolaiv had been hit.

In its most explicit threat yet, the Russian military announced that as of Thursday morning it will assume that all ships calling at Ukrainian waters are potentially carrying weapons and that their flag countries will be considered warring factions on the Ukrainian side. It said it was declaring parts of the Black Sea unsafe.

Kiev responded Thursday by announcing similar measures, saying that ships bound for Russia or Russian-held Ukrainian territory would also carry weapons.

Washington called Russia’s threat a signal that Moscow could attack civilian shipping and said Russia will also dump new mines in the sea.

“We believe this is a coordinated effort to justify any attacks on civilian vessels in the Black Sea and to blame Ukraine for those attacks,” said Adam Hodge, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

Cluster munitions reach the front lines

Beijing initially did not publicly mention the incident in its consulate, as it occurred while Ukraine’s Economy Minister Taras Kachka was in China for the first high-level Ukrainian visit since the Russian invasion.

China said it told Kachka it was ready to expand imports of Ukrainian goods. Kiev has long tried to persuade Beijing to distance itself from Moscow.

The escalation in the Black Sea comes as Kiev reports a new Russian attempt to return to the offensive in northeastern Ukraine, where Moscow is said to have deployed 100,000 troops and hundreds of tanks.

On the front line near Kupiansk, a railroad junction that Ukraine recaptured last month, Stanislav, an artillery unit commander, said his forces had received newly issued cluster munitions and could start firing soon: “Maybe today or tomorrow. “

The United States this month began sending cluster munitions to Ukraine, despite many countries banning them as a potential threat to civilians. Kiev says the munitions, which contain dozens of small bombs that rain shrapnel over an area, could save lives if used in special circumstances to hasten the collapse of Russia’s frontline.

“Enemy troops have been quite active lately, trying to move forward all the time, trying to take new positions and attacking us all the time. We’re helping our infantry hold their positions, repel their advances and repel their attacks,” said Stanislav, who didn’t give a last name.

For the past month, Ukrainian forces have been advancing in the east and south, retaking small areas in their first major counteroffensive since last year. But progress is slow, as Ukrainians are yet to tackle Russia’s main defense lines.

Wheat prices are rising

The Black Sea escalation sent US wheat futures Wv1 up another 1.5% in the early hours of Thursday after rising 8.5% on Wednesday, its fastest daily gain since the early days of the Russian invasion February last year.

Both Ukraine and Russia are among the world’s largest exporters of grain and other food products. According to the United Nations, withdrawing tens of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain from the market would cause global shortages.

Russia, which closed Ukraine’s ports in the first months after the invasion, reopened them a year ago under the grain deal, with Turkey and the United Nations overseeing inspections of ships with Russian involvement.

A parallel deal offered guarantees for Russia’s own food and fertilizer exports. Moscow says this has not been fully implemented. Western countries say Russia has had no trouble selling its food, which is exempt from financial sanctions.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his evening televised address that Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s ports proved that “their goal is not only Ukraine and not only the life of our people”.

(Writing by Peter GraffEditing by Angus MacSwan)

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2023.

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