Ukraine said Monday it expects to export its first grain shipments under a UN-backed deal to lift Russia’s blockade “this week”, days after missile strikes by the Kremlin threw the accord into doubt.
But while grain shipments seemed ready to resume for the first time since the Kremlin’s invasion five months ago, Russia’s natural gas giant Gazprom added to the geopolitical tensions by warning it would drastically cut deliveries to Europe again.
Kyiv and Moscow on Friday agreed a landmark plan to release millions of tonnes of wheat and other grain trapped in Ukraine’s Black Sea ports in a move hailed as a major step to averting a global food crisis.
Less than 24 hours later Moscow struck the port in Odessa — one of three exit hubs designated in the agreement — sparking fury in Kyiv and heightening fears the Kremlin would not go through with the deal.
But despite the weekend attack, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said Kyiv expected to see the agreement begin “working in the coming days”.
“We are preparing for everything to start this week,” said Kubrakov, who led Ukraine’s delegation at last week’s grain talks in Istanbul.
Ukrainian officials said the port of Chornomorsk in southwestern Ukraine would be the first to be opened and insisted on the importance of security following the strike on nearby Odessa.
Kubrakov said de-mining will take place “exclusively” in the shipping lanes required for grain exports, while Ukrainian ships will accompany the departing convoys that will transport not only grain but also fertiliser.
After speaking to Kubrakov by phone, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar welcomed Ukraine’s resolve to resume the shipments.
“It is important that the first ship starts sailing as soon as possible,” Akar said in a statement.
Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of agricultural products, but Moscow’s invasion has severely disrupted Ukrainian wheat exports as the fighting damaged harvests and left ports blocked and mined.
Russia’s naval blockade helped send global prices soaring and sparked fears of famine as it left up to 25 million tonnes of wheat and other grains stranded in Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has estimated the value of grain stocks to be exported under the deal at around $10 billion.
– Kremlin’s shifting narrative –
The Kremlin insisted Monday that its strikes on Odessa “should not affect” the Turkish-brokered push to send the grain to world markets.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow’s cruise missiles hit “exclusively” military infrastructure and were “not connected with the agreement on the export of grain.”
Turkey, which helped broker the accord, said after the attack that it had received assurances from Moscow that Russian forces were not responsible.
Moscow then admitted that it had carried out the strikes, but claimed to have targeted a Ukrainian military vessel and arms delivered by Washington.
Russia has looked to shift the blame for the food crisis onto Western sanctions and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was visiting Africa on a tour aimed at bolstering Moscow’s ties in the face of growing isolation.
Lavrov, who is visiting Uganda, Ethiopia and Congo-Brazzaville, told his Egyptian counterpart on his first stop that Russia would meet grain orders.
Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak slammed the visit as a cynical ploy by Moscow after it had fuelled the food crisis.
“You arranged the artificial hunger and then come to cheer people up,” he said on Twitter, assuring that Ukrainian grain will reach its destinations.
“Whether Moscow wants or not, Ukrainian grain will reach the world.”
– Gazprom gas cut –
The deal for grain exports has done little to ease the geopolitical tensions between the West and Moscow over the invasion.
Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, unexpectedly announced it was cutting daily deliveries of gas to Europe via the Nord Stream pipeline to 33 million cubic metres a day — about 20 percent of the pipeline’s capacity — from Wednesday.
The company said it was halting the operation of one of the last two operating turbines due to the “technical condition of the engine”.
The government of Germany, which receives the gas directly by the undersea energy link, said there was “no technical reason” for Gazprom’s announcement.
Russia’s forces continue to press on with their grinding push across Ukraine’s southeast, where Kyiv’s forces are being boosted by fresh Western military aid shipments.
The Ukrainian presidency said Monday that a Russian strike trapped seven people under the rubble of a collapsed cultural centre in the northeastern Kharkiv region. Three were pulled out alive and the rescue operation was ongoing.
It said shelling continued across the entire front line and at least one person was killed in the town of Soledar.
In the south — where Kyiv has vowed a major counter-offensive to retake the strategic Kherson region — officials said Ukrainian forces stopped a Russian push in several villages.
Ukraine’s bid to oust the Kremlin’s forces has been bolstered by longer range Western weapons that have allowed Kyiv to target Russian supply lines deeper in occupied areas.
Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Ukraine had received the first of an expected 15 Gepard anti-aircraft systems and tens of thousands of shells from Germany in the latest foreign arms to arrive.