A breakthrough deal to unblock Ukraine grain shipments is on a knife-edge following missile strikes on a key Ukrainian port Saturday.
Odesa port was hit by alleged Russian missiles yesterday morning – just hours after Kyiv and Moscow signed an agreement to allow wheat and maize exports from Ukraine.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of “barbarism”, saying the attack had “destroyed the very possibility” of dialogue with Moscow.
On Sunday, Moscow said Russian missiles had only hit military targets in Odesa and that no grain storage facilities were struck.
Kyiv — which claimed Russia deliberately targetted the port in southern Ukraine — vowed that grain exports would continue, despite the deal seemingly in tatters.
It remains to be seen how the airstrike will affect plans to resume grain shipments.
On Friday, Ukraine and Russia signed an agreement to allow millions of tonnes of much-needed grain to be shipped from Ukraine over the Black Sea.
Under the deal, which was brokered in Istanbul by Turkey and the UN, both parties agreed “not to attack” ships carrying foodstuffs.
Odesa seaport, a crucial site for exporting grain, was hit by multiple Russian missiles early Saturday morning, according to Ukraine’s airforce.
“The port of Odesa, where grain is processed for shipment, was shelled. We shot down two missiles, and two more missiles hit the port territory, where, obviously, there is grain,” Ukrainian air force spokesman Yuri Ignat told reporters.
Local authorities said the strikes had left wounded in Odesa, without specifying how many or how serious their injuries were. Port infrastructure was also damaged by explosions and ensuing fires, they said.
Odesa — the largest and most important port on the Black Sea — is integral for staging shipments of Ukrainian grain.
Having remained silent until Sunday, Russia’s foreign ministry claimed only military targets, including western weapon supplies, had been targetted.
“Sea-based high-precision long-range missiles destroyed a docked Ukrainian warship and a warehouse with Harpoon anti-ship missiles supplied by the U.S. to the Kyiv regime,” ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said at a daily briefing.
The strike has been “unequivocally condemned” by the UN, alongside EU officials, such as European Commission vice president Josep Borrell, who said it “demonstrates Russia’s total disregard for international law.”
Ukraine accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of “spitting in the face” of the UN and Turkey by bombing Odesa Port, saying Moscow would bear “full responsibility” if the agreement failed.
Putin has “spit in the face of UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres and Turkish president Recep Erdogan, who have made enormous efforts to reach this agreement”, said Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry.
Zelenskyy later claimed Moscow had broken the terms of the deal, the first of its kind between the warring parties, adding it was “the responsibility of the UN” to ensure the agreement works.
“This only proves one thing: whatever Russia says and promises, it will find ways not to implement it,” Zelenskyy said Saturday night.
Turkey, which played a key role in bringing the two sides to the negotiating table, said it was “concerned” by the Russian strikes.
“The fact that such an incident happened right after the agreement we reached yesterday… really concerns us,” Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar said.
He continued: “The Russians told us that they had absolutely nothing to do with this attack and that they were examining the matter very closely.”
Moscow is yet to officially react to the attacks.
West governments also condemned the strikes.
Britain’s top diplomat Liz Truss said the incident showed “that one cannot trust a word of what Mr Putin says”, while the US put the onus on Russia to ensure the deal succeeds.
“It is now up to Russia to concretely implement this agreement,” warned American diplomacy.
The breakthrough deal aimed to establish “safe corridors” to allow much-needed grain to be exported around the world, with both Ukraine and Russia pledging not to attack ships sailing the heavily mined waters of the Black Sea.
It will be valid for 120 days, which should allow millions of tonnes of grain languishing in Ukrainian silos to be shipped to where it is needed.
Leaders of the African Union had welcomed the deal as their continent is heavily reliant on Ukrainian grain, which provides 40% of the wheat for the World Food Programme and 10% of the entire world’s supply.