Russia Destroys Ukraine's Ability to Export Grain in Black Sea Confrontation

Russia stormed Ukrainian ports for the fourth straight night on Friday, attacking barns in Odesa and putting up a naval show of force in the Black Sea in a deepening fight that jeopardized a vital part of the global food supply.

The Kremlin this week withdrew from an old agreement that had allowed ships carrying food from Ukrainian ports to bypass the Russian blockade, and began bombarding facilities used to ship grain and cooking oil across the Black Sea. The Russian military warned that any ships trying to reach Ukraine would be treated as adversaries, and their country “would be deemed to be involved in the Ukrainian conflict on the part of the Kyiv regime.”

On Friday, Russia conducted naval drills in the northwestern Black Sea – a part near the coastline that Ukraine still holds – supporting suggestions that Russia could seize or destroy cargo ships of non-belligerent nations. Russia's Defense Ministry said in a statement that a missile boat fired anti-ship cruise missiles and destroyed a “dummy target” ship, while Black Sea Fleet ships and aircraft “exercised isolating areas temporarily closed for navigation” and carried out exercises “to capture dummy intruder vessels.”

A pre-dawn missile strike destroyed 100 tonnes of peas and 20 tonnes of barley at the port in Odesa, based on Oleg Kiper, head of the regional military administration. It came two days after an attack on the port outside Odesa destroyed 60,000 tons of grain to be loaded onto ships, the government said—enough to feed more than 270,000 people for a year, according to the World Food Program.

“A new wave of attacks on Ukrainian ports risks far-reaching impacts on global food security, particularly in developing countries,” Rosemary DiCarlo, deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, told an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Friday. “In addition, as we have stated repeatedly, attacks on civilian infrastructure can constitute a violation of international law.”

The UN humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, warned the council that the escalating rhetoric even threatens to increase food prices and food instability around the world. Prices have risen this week, but not as sharply as when the war started, and economists say the effect could be serious but not as severe as global supply is more plentiful. Ukraine has increased its inland exports, but not enough to compensate for lost shipments.

Russia would easily renew the deal, its representative said at the UN meeting, but only if another country lifted the sentence handed down on it for invading Ukraine 17 months ago — conditions that are impossible to fulfill.

On Friday, Russia's central bank signaling concerns about its economy, especially inflation, raised its benchmark interest rate a full percentage point, to 8.5 percent – ​​a much bigger increase than analysts had expected. The central bank is projecting a relatively healthy 2.5 percent economic growth this year, after contracting by the same rate last year. But the resurgence was sparked by the government pumping money into the economy with much higher military spending, including payments to soldiers and their families, and social programs such as mortgage subsidies.

Russia has more cash to spend but not enough to spend it, spurring inflation which the central bank estimates will reach 5 to 6.5 percent this year. Sanctions make it harder for businesses to import products, including manufacturing equipment, and conscription into the military or flights from a country of hundreds of thousands of people makes it harder to recruit workers.

Ukraine and Russia have long produced the bulk of the global food supply — before the war, they accounted for about a quarter of world exports of wheat and barley and most of its cooking oil, especially sunflower oil, and Russia was the largest supplier of fertilizers. Russia's blockade of Ukraine, and Western sanctions on Russia, caused their exports to fall sharply early last year, exacerbated shortages and spiked prices around the world, and threatened famine in some areas, particularly in East Africa.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative, brokered in July 2022 by the United Nations and Turkey, allows ships carrying food to leave Ukrainian ports, and contains provisions to allow Russian agricultural exports. But the Kremlin has complained that the elements in Russia's favor are grossly inadequate or not fully respected, sending exports down and forcing Russian producers to sell to the world at below market prices — favoring European competitors.

Over the months, Moscow has made a series of demands to continue the grain initiative: Allow Russia's state-owned agricultural bank to rejoin the SWIFT messaging system that enables international transactions; ensure that foreign insurance and shipping companies can do business with Russian agricultural exporters without violating sanctions; allow Russia to resume imports of parts for agricultural equipment; ending sanctions against Russian fertilizer producers and their executives; and restoring the pipeline carrying Russian ammonia to Odesa.

There must be a “real and non-theoretical lifting of sanctions,” Russia's deputy UN ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, told a Security Council meeting on Friday, citing some of the same demands. “As soon as all these conditions are met, we will reach an agreement soon.”

But Russia's actions went beyond stalling the grain deal, threatening other Black Sea shipping and hurting Ukraine's ability to ship food by sea any time soon, launching wave after wave of missiles and attacking drones at port facilities this week. Russian missile and artillery attacks in other parts of the country overnight killed eight people, Ukrainian officials said.

Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum on Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said, “Russia by arming food is doing something absolutely absurd.”

In Moscow, Sergei Vershinin, the deputy foreign minister, told reporters at a briefing that the grain deal would not be revived unless Russia's demands were met, and in the meantime, Russia might stop and inspect civilian ships in the Black Sea for military cargo.

On Thursday, the White House warned that Moscow could prepare a false flag operation to attack civilian vessels and blame it on Ukraine. The threat has halted maritime traffic in the area. Tracking data shows that the ship which had headed for the Black Sea is sitting in port in Istanbul, waiting to see if a deal to resume grain shipments can be reached.

Mr Vershinin said there were no ongoing talks yet, but President Vladimir V. Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey were expected to discuss the matter soon.

He accused Ukraine of misusing a safe passage corridor meant for grain ships to launch attack drones on naval bases in Russian-occupied Crimea, and the bridge linking Crimea to Russia. Ukraine denies using the corridor for military purposes.

The Institute for the Study of War, based in Washington, wrote in evaluation published late Thursday that “the Kremlin likely views the Black Sea Grain Initiative as one of its few remaining avenues of influence with the West.” Russia, he added, was “trying to create a sense of urgency by carrying out intensive attacks on Ukraine's grain and port infrastructure and threatening to attack civilian vessels.”

Russia has been restless since last month's failed uprising by a Wagner mercenary group against the military leadership, which has prompted the sacking of several top commanders and questioned what is seen as Putin's iron grip.

“For many Russians watching this, accustomed to Putin's image as the arbiter of order, the question is, ‘Does the emperor have no clothes?'” CIA director William J. Burns told the Aspen Security Forum on Friday, in his most extensive public comment yet on the mutiny. “Or, at least, ‘Why is it taking him so long to get dressed?'”

Mr Burns said he expected Mr Putin to ultimately punish Wagner's leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who remained free and unharmed.

Igor Girkin, an ultranationalist commentator who has become a pro-war critic of the way the invasion was carried out, was arrested Friday, signaling that the one form of public dissent allowed by the government may no longer be allowed. Prosecutors charged him with spreading public appeals to engage in extremist activities, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison, and asked a Moscow court to hold him in pretrial detention.

Belarus, Russia's closest ally, has picked up several Wagner fighters in recent weeks, and they are training Belarusian special operations forces, the Belarusian government said on Thursday. The training ground is only three miles from Poland, a Nato member with deep distrust of Belarus and Russia.

In response, Poland said on Friday it would move military forces near the border with Belarus. Mr. Putin, in turn, lashed out at Poland, saying that Russia would respond to “aggression” against Belarus “with all the means at our disposal.”

Ivan Nechepurenko reported from Tbilisi, Georgia, Victoria Kim from Seoul and Farnaz Fassihi And Richard Perez-Pen from New York. Reporting contributed by Anatoly Kurmanaev from Berlin; Neil MacFarquhar, Gupta style And James C. McKinley Jr. from New York; Eric Schmitt, David E Sanger And Julian E. Barnes from Aspen, Colo.; Shashank Bengali from London and Erin Mendel from Seoul.