Russian missiles hit Ukraine port; Kyiv says it is still preparing grain exports
By Natalia Zinets
KYIV (Reuters) -Russian missiles hit Ukraine’s southern port of Odesa on Saturday, the Ukrainian military said, threatening a deal signed just a day earlier to unblock grain exports from Black Sea ports and ease global food shortages caused by the war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called the strike blatant “barbarism” showing 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 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 neighbour. It is seen as crucial to curbing soaring global food prices by allowing grain exports to be shipped from Black Sea ports including Odesa.
The strikes on Odesa drew strong condemnation from the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, Britain, Germany and Italy. On Friday, U.N. officials said they hoped the agreement would be operational in a few weeks.
Turkey’s defence minister said Russian officials told Ankara that Moscow had “nothing to do” with the strikes. Neither Russian defence ministry statements nor the military’s evening summary mentioned missile strikes in Odesa. The ministry did not reply to a Reuters request for comment.
Two Russian Kalibr missiles hit the area of a pumping station at the port; two others were shot down by air defence forces, according to Ukraine’s military. Ukrainian air force spokesperson Yuriy Ignat said the missiles were fired from warships in the Black Sea near Crimea.
Suspilne quoted Ukraine’s southern military command as saying the port’s grain storage area was not hit.
“Unfortunately there are wounded. The port’s infrastructure was damaged,” said Odesa region governor Maksym Marchenko.
But Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said on Facebook that “we continue technical preparations for the launch of exports of agricultural products from our ports”.
The strike appeared to violate Friday’s deal, which would allow safe passage in and out of Ukrainian ports.
“If anyone in the world could have said before this that some kind of dialogue with Russia, some kind of agreements, would be necessary, look at what is happening,” Zelenskiy said in a late-night video.
He vowed to do everything possible to acquire air defense systems able to shoot down missiles like those that hit Odesa.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that “this attack casts serious doubt on the credibility of Russia’s commitment to yesterday’s deal.”
“Russia bears responsibility for deepening the global food crisis and must stop its aggression,” he added.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “unequivocally condemned” the strikes, a spokesperson said, adding full implementation of the deal was imperative.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusai Akar said in a statement: “The Russians told us that they had absolutely nothing to do with this attack … The fact that such an incident took place right after the agreement we made yesterday really worried us.”
Ukraine has mined waters near its ports as part of its war defences, but under the deal pilots will guide ships along safe channels.
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.
‘SPIT IN THE FACE’
Ukraine foreign ministry spokesperson Oleg 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.
Moscow has denied responsibility for the food crisis, blaming Western sanctions for slowing its food and fertiliser exports and Ukraine for mining the approaches to its ports.
A blockade of Ukrainian ports by Russia’s Black Sea fleet since Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion has trapped tens of millions of tonnes of grain and stranded many ships.
This has worsened global supply chain bottlenecks. Along with Western sanctions on Russia, it has stoked food and energy price inflation. Russia and Ukraine are major global wheat suppliers and a global food crisis has pushed some 47 million people into “acute hunger,” according to the World Food Programme.
The deal would restore grain shipments from the three reopened ports to pre-war levels of 5 million tonnes a month, U.N. officials said.
Also on Saturday, the U.S. State Department confirmed that two Americans were killed recently in Ukraine’s Donbas region but declined to provide details.
A U.S. congressional delegation that met Zelenskiy in Kyiv promised continued support. Adam Smith, chair of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, was quoted as telling Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that Washington and its allies aimed to provide more multiple rocket launch systems.
Three people were killed when 13 Russian missiles hit a military airfield and railway infrastructure in Ukraine’s central region of Kirovohrad, the regional governor said.
Ukraine struck a bridge in the occupied Black Sea region of Kherson, targeting a Russian supply route, a Ukrainian official said. The deputy head of the Russian-installed regional authority said the bridge had been hit but was still operating, Russia’s TASS news agency said.
Zelenskiy said late on Saturday that Ukrainian forces were moving “step by step” into the eastern Kherson region, which was taken over by Russia at the start of the war.
Putin calls the war a “special military operation” and has said it is aimed at demilitarising Ukraine and rooting out dangerous nationalists. Kyiv and the West call this a baseless pretext for an aggressive land grab.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kyiv, Tom Balmforth in London and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Frances Kerry, Louise Heavens, Grant McCool and David Gregorio)