Russia blocked Ukraine’s ports for a fourth night in a row on Friday, hitting granaries in Odesa and staging a show of naval force on the Black Sea in a deepening crisis that disrupts a vital part of the global food supply.
The Kremlin this week withdrew from a year-long agreement that allows ships carrying food from Ukrainian ports to bypass the Russian blockade, and began intensified bombing of facilities used to ship grain and cooking oil across the Black Sea. The Russian military warned that any craft attempting to reach Ukraine would be treated as hostile, and that its nations would be considered “participants in the conflict in Ukraine on the side of the Kyiv regime”.
On Friday, Russia carried out naval exercises in the northwestern Black Sea – the part close to the coast still held by Ukraine – supporting the suggestion that it could seize or destroy the cargo ships of non-combatant nations. The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that a missile boat fired anti-ship cruise missiles and destroyed a “mock target” vessel, and that Black Sea Fleet ships and planes “practiced isolating an area temporarily closed to navigation” and conducted a drill “to capture a mock invasion ship.”
Missile strikes around dawn destroyed 100 tons of peas and 20 tons of barley at the port in Odesa, according to Oleg Kiper, head of the regional military administration. That came two days after an attack on a port just outside Odesa destroyed 60,000 tonnes 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 Programme.
“The new wave of attacks on Ukrainian ports risks having a far-reaching impact on global food security, especially in developing countries,” said Rosemary DiCarlo, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General, at an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Friday. “Furthermore, as we have said time and time again, attacks on civilian infrastructure may constitute a violation of international law.”
The UN’s humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, warned the council that even escalating rhetoric threatened to increase food prices and food instability around the globe. Prices have risen this week, but not as sharply as when the war began, and economists say the effect could be serious but less severe because global supplies are more abundant. Ukraine’s overland exports have increased, but not enough to compensate for the shipping loss.
Russia would easily renew the agreement, its representative at the UN meeting said, but other nations would lift penalties imposed on it for invading Ukraine 17 months ago — conditions that are unlikely to be met.
On Friday, Russia’s central bank expressed concern about its economy, in particular inflation, raising its benchmark interest rate a full percentage point, to 8.5 percent – a much larger increase than analysts had expected. The central bank projected a relatively healthy economic growth of 2.5 percent this year, after contracting at a similar rate last year. But the rebound is fueled by the government pumping money into the economy with much higher military spending, including payments to soldiers and their families, and social programs like mortgage subsidies.
Russians have more money to spend but not enough to spend on it, fueling inflation that the central bank predicts will reach 5 to 6.5 percent this year. Sanctions have made it more difficult for businesses to import products, including manufacturing equipment, and hiring workers due to conscription or flight out of the country.
Ukraine and Russia have long produced much of the world’s food supply — before the war, they accounted for about a quarter of the world’s wheat and barley exports and a large share of its cooking oil, especially sunflower oil, and Russia was the largest supplier of fertilizers. Due to Russia’s blockade of Ukraine, and Western sanctions against Russia, their exports fell sharply early last year, worsening shortages and price spikes around the world, and threatening famine in some areas, especially in East Africa.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative, brokered in July 2022 by the United Nations and Turkey, allowed ships carrying food to leave Ukrainian ports, and contained provisions to enable Russian agricultural exports. But the Kremlin has complained that the elements that benefited Russia were insufficient or not fully honoured, holding down exports and forcing Russian producers to sell to the world at below-market prices – which favored European rivals.
In recent 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 import spare parts for agricultural equipment again; ending sanctions against Russian fertilizer producers and their executives; and restoring a pipeline carrying Russian ammonia to Odesa.
There must be a “very theoretical increase in sanctions,” Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, said at Friday’s Security Council meeting, citing some of the same demands. “As soon as all these conditions are met, we will immediately reach the market.”
But Russia’s actions go far beyond just stopping the grain deal, threatening other shipping in the Black Sea and ending Ukraine’s ability to ship food by sea in the near future, launching wave after wave of missile and drone attacks at port facilities this week. Eight people were killed in a Russian missile and artillery attack on other parts of the country overnight, Ukrainian officials said.
Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum on Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said, “Russia by weaponizing food is doing something really unconscionable.”
In Moscow, Sergei Vershinin, deputy foreign minister, told reporters at a briefing that the grain market would not be revived unless Russian demands were met, and that Russia could stop and inspect civilian ships in the Black Sea for military cargo in the meantime.
On Thursday, the White House warned that Moscow may be preparing a fake operation to attack civilian ships and blame it on Ukraine. The threats stopped marine traffic in the area. Tracking data shows that ships bound for the Black Sea are sitting in port in Istanbul, waiting to see if an agreement can be reached to resume grain shipments.
Mr. Vershinin said there were no talks yet, but President Vladimir V. Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were expected to discuss the issue soon.
He accused Ukraine of abusing the safe passage meant for grain ships to launch attack drones against a naval base in Russian-held Crimea, and the bridge that connects Crimea with Russia proper. Ukraine has refused to use the corridor for military purposes.
The Institute for the Study of War, based in Washington, wrote i assessment published Thursday night that “the Kremlin probably views the Black Sea Grain Initiative as one of its few remaining means of leverage against the West.” Russia, he said, “is trying to create a sense of urgency by carrying out intense strikes on Ukraine’s port and grain infrastructure and threatening to hit civilian ships.”
Russia has been reeling from last month’s failed coup by mercenary group Wagner against the military leadership, which prompted the ouster of several top commanders and raised questions about what was seen as Mr Putin’s iron grip.
“For many Russians watching this, who are used to this image of Putin as an arbiter of order, the question was, ‘Does the emperor have no clothes?'” CIA director William J. Burns told the Aspen Security Forum on Friday, in his most extensive public comments on the insurgency. “Or, at the very least, ‘Why is he taking so long to get dressed?'”
Mr. Burns said he expected Mr. Putin to punish Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who remained free and unharmed.
Igor Girkin, an ultranationalist commentator who has been a pro-war critic of the way the invasion was carried out, was arrested on Friday, suggesting that the only 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, punishable by up to five years in prison, and asked a Moscow court to keep him in pre-trial detention.
Belarus, Russia’s closest ally, has received several Wagner fighters in recent weeks and is training Belarusian special operations troops, the Belarusian government said Thursday. The training site is only three miles from Poland, a NATO member that is mistrusted by both Belarus and Russia.
In response, Poland said on Friday that it would be moving military forces near the border with Belarus. Mr Putin, in turn, lashed out at Poland, saying 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-Pena from New York. The reporting contributed Anatoly Kurmanaev from Berlin; Neil MacFarquhar, Gaya Gupta and James C. McKinley Jr. from New York; Eric Schmitt, David E. Sanger and Julian E. Barnes from Aspen, Colo.; Bengali Shashank from London and Erin Mendell from Seoul.