Odesa port attack fails to deter Ukraine from grain export plan

Missile strikes had raised fears of collapse of deal to resume shipments from two of the world's biggest suppliers

Firefighters battle blazes at the Ukrainian sea port of Odesa after the missile attacks. Photo: Odesa City Hall Press Office / EPA
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Ukraine was on Sunday pressing ahead with efforts to resume grain exports from Odesa and other Black Sea ports after a missile attack had cast doubt over whether Russia would honour a deal aimed at easing global food shortages.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denounced Saturday's strikes on Odesa port as blatant "barbarism" that showed Russia could not be trusted to adhere to Friday's deal, mediated by Turkey and the United Nations.

Russia said its forces had hit a Ukrainian warship and a weapons store in Odesa with missiles.

Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said that Kalibr cruise missiles had destroyed a Ukrainian “military infrastructure facility” in the Black Sea port.

She issued the statement on Telegram on Sunday, a day after Ukraine’s military said the strategic port had come under attack in a development of the war that drew international condemnation including from the US, EU and UN.

Moscow targeted the port a day after it signed a deal with Kyiv to ensure safe shipping of grain from Ukrainian ports.

Earlier, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Moscow had denied any involvement.

“The Russians told us that they had absolutely nothing to do with this attack and they were looking into the issue very closely,” he said.

Ukraine's military said two Russian Kalibr missiles hit the area of a pumping station at the port and two others were intercepted.

The military said the port's grain storage area was not hit and a government minister said preparations to resume shipments were continuing.

"We continue technical preparations for the launch of exports of agricultural products from our ports," Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said on Facebook.

A spokesman for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said that Russia had breached its promises with the attack but Ukrainian Deputy Economy Minister Taras Kachka insisted that Friday’s deal remained in place.

“It doesn’t mean that all agreements are crossed out, because everyone understood that any agreement has high risks,” Mr Kachka said. “Today’s shelling clearly illustrated all those risks that existed did not disappear — they still exist.”

The attack cast doubt over validity of the deal signed by Moscow and Kyiv in Istanbul, which was hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough that would help curb soaring global food prices caused by Russia's war in Ukraine.

A Joint Co-ordination Centre staffed by the UN, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine is to monitor ships transiting the Black Sea to Turkey's Bosporus Strait en route to world markets. All sides agreed on Friday there would be no attacks on these entities.

UN officials said the deal, expected to be operational within a few weeks, would restore grain shipments from three Ukrainian ports to pre-war levels of 5 million tonnes a month.

Oleh Ustenko, economic adviser to the Ukrainian president, on Sunday said the attack on the strategic port city showed deliveries could still be seriously disrupted despite the deal.

"Yesterday's strike indicates that it will definitely not work like that," Mr Ustenko told Ukrainian television.

While Ukraine had the capacity to export 60 million tonnes of grain over the next nine months, this could take up to two years if its ports could not function properly, he said.

A blockade of ports by Russia's Black Sea fleet since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24 has halted shipment of tens of millions of tonnes of grain from two of the world's major suppliers.

Moscow denies responsibility for the food crisis, blaming western sanctions linked to the war for slowing its food and fertiliser exports, and Ukraine for mining the approaches to its ports.

But the invasion has stoked food and energy price inflation, driving some 47 million people into "acute hunger," the World Food Programme has said.

Ukraine laid the mines as part of its war defence, but under the deal pilots will guide ships through safe channels.

There was no sign of a let-up in fighting as the war entered its sixth month on Sunday.

While the main theatre of combat has been the eastern region of Donbas, Mr Zelenskyy said in video posted late on Saturday that Ukrainian forces were moving "step by step" into the occupied eastern Black Sea region of Kherson.

The Ukrainian military reported Russian shelling in the north, south and east, and again referred to Russian operations paving the way for an assault on Bakhmut in the Donbas region in the east.

The air force command said its forces had early on Sunday shot down three Russian Kalibr cruise missiles fired from the Black Sea and aimed at the western Khmelnytskiy region.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drags into its sixth month, there was talk of more weapons being donated to Kyiv.

The head of the US House Armed Services Committee said the US and its allies could provide as many as 25 to 30 multiple-launch rocket launch systems to Ukraine, including ones already sent.

Representative Adam Smith outlined the plans to US-government operated Radio Free Europe. The US HIMARS and similar systems have been effect in targeting Russian arms depots and other targets in recent weeks.

Ukraine has requested at least 50 of the systems for defence and more for offensive operations. The US has delivered a dozen and approved four more in a new $270 million (£224 million) military aid package announced Friday. “It is not a fact that our arsenal has 50 of these units,” Mr Smith said.

Bridget Brink, the US ambassador to Ukraine, said assistance would continue “for as long as it takes.”

Meanwhile, the closure of the Jewish Agency’s office in Russia would be a serious event that would affect Israel’s relations with Moscow, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said.

Russian authorities last week asked a Moscow court to liquidate a prominent group handling the emigration of Jews to Israel. A preliminary hearing is set for Thursday.

Updated: July 24, 2022, 1:59 PM