Russian missiles struck infrastructure in Ukraine's port of Odesa Saturday, one day after Russia and Ukraine signed U.N.-backed agreements to reopen Black Sea ports to resume grain exports.
"The enemy attacked the Odesa sea trade port with Kalibr cruise missiles; 2 missiles were shot down by air defense forces; 2 hit the infrastructure of the port," Ukraine’s Operational Command South wrote on the Telegram messaging app.Ukraine’s Ministry of Agriculture confirmed there was grain stored at the port at the time of the attack, the Kyiv Independent reported. The grain was expected to be exported in the next couple of days, according to the ministry's comment.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said that “Russia would bear full responsibility for deepening the global food crisis” if the deal collapsed.
“It took less than 24 hours for Russia to launch a missile attack on Odesa’s port, breaking its promises and undermining its commitments before the UN and Türkiye under the Istanbul agreement," Ukraine Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said on Twitter. “In case of non-fulfillment, Russia will bear full responsibility for global food crisis.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the Russian strike on Odesa demonstrates that Moscow will find ways not to implement the grain deal struck with the United Nations, Turkey and Ukraine.
"This proves only one thing: no matter what Russia says and promises, it will find ways not to implement it," Zelenskyy said in a video posted on Telegram.
The U.N. Secretary-General strongly condemned the reported strikes.
“Yesterday, all parties made clear commitments on the global stage to ensure the safe movement of Ukrainian grain and related products to global markets,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement delivered by spokesman Farhan Haq.
“These products are desperately needed to address the global food crisis and ease the suffering of millions of people in need around the globe. Full implementation by the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Turkey is imperative."
U.S. Ambassador to Kyiv Bridget Brink called the strike "outrageous."
"Russia strikes the port city of Odesa less than 24 hours after signing an agreement to allow shipments of agricultural exports. The Kremlin continues to weaponize food. Russia must be held to account," she said on Twitter.
Russia's defense ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment about the attack.
Ukraine is a leading grain exporter, producing enough to feed 400 million people a year, but about 20 million tons of its grain has been trapped for months in silos and on ships blockaded by Russia in the Black Sea.
Russia's defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and Ukraine's infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, took turns at the table Friday signing the deal, known as the Black Sea Initiative. It was also signed by Turkey's defense minister and the U.N. secretary-general, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan looked on.
"This joint step we are taking today in Istanbul, together with Russia and Ukraine, will be a new turning point that will revive the hopes for peace, this is my sincere hope," Erdogan said Friday, adding that he hoped the "friendly and peaceful atmosphere" built on the Black Sea Initiative could eventually lead to transformative steps to end the war.
The initial agreement was set to last 120 days, but a U.N. official said it would have to continue as long as the war does.
The United Nations had been working for months with Ukrainian and Russian officials on two parallel tracks: one to lift the Russian blockade on Ukraine's southern Black Sea ports, the other to facilitate unimpeded access for Russian food and fertilizer to world markets. Russia is also a leading grain exporter and the top global fertilizer producer. Since the war, the price of fertilizer on the global market has doubled, in turn driving up the cost of crops.
Just before the public signing of the grain deal, the U.N. chief and the Russian defense minister privately signed a memorandum of understanding to address the disruptions to the trade of Russian food and fertilizer.
The deal was hailed as a breakthrough, after nearly five months of punishing fighting since Russia invaded its neighbor, and critical to curbing soaring food prices.
The deal could see Ukrainian ships begin to move again within the next few weeks.
The U.N. says 276 million people were severely food insecure before Russia's February 24 invasion; now officials project the number to be 345 million. It was expected that the deal will bring relief to millions who have been struggling with rising food prices as a result of the war.
Terms of the deal
Ukraine will continue as it did before the war to handle the internal logistics of getting its grain from its fields and silos to the ports.
Ukraine has mined its territorial waters, and under the deal, it will help guide commercial cargo ships carrying its grain through "safe corridors," which, a U.N. official said, is a faster solution than the months it could take to de-mine the waters.
The official said cargo ships will be inspected as they enter Ukrainian ports to be sure they are not bringing in any weapons shipments, as well as when they exit, by teams of Ukrainian, Russian and Turkish monitors, who will be part of an Istanbul-based Joint Coordination Center.
Turkey plays an important role in the operation, as the ships will pass from the Black Sea out through the Bosphorus.
Both parties have pledged not to attack any ships that have been identified as sailing under the deal through the safe corridors. The U.N. official said if there is an incident, it would fall to the Joint Coordination Center (JCC) to resolve it. The official said the JCC would be the "heartbeat" of the operation.
The package deal helps Russia overcome obstacles for the sale of its fertilizer and food products. While U.S. and European sanctions on Moscow do not include those exports, the private sector has been hesitant to work with the Russians, fearful of running afoul of the sanctions.
The U.N. will now set up a team to follow up and coordinate with countries and the private sector.
"This task team will be focused on addressing the disruptions to the food and fertilizer trade largely due to the de-risking and overcompliance of the private sector, particularly in the sectors of finance, insurance and logistics," U.N. Spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters. He said this effort is fully coordinated with the grain initiative.
The Americans contend that Moscow is holding back its exports on purpose as part of its disinformation campaign about Western sanctions.
"When in fact there are no sanctions on their agricultural products, there are no sanctions on their fertilizer," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told Congress this week. "They can move their agricultural products; they can move their wheat if they wanted to do it. But they would prefer to blame the rest of the world, thinking that that will get them more support from the world, and I think they have failed."
"We welcome this deal and hope it will help mitigate the crisis Russia has caused," Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said in tweet Friday. "But we will be watching closely to ensure that Russia actually follows through on its commitments."
The White House was equally cautious.
“Success, of course, is going to depend on Russia's compliance with this arrangement and actually implementing its commitments,” John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, told reporters Friday.
“We’re clear-eyed about it,” he said. “We’ve just sadly come to see in many instances throughout the last five months, as well as even in other places, Russia’s word is never good enough on its face.”
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kulebo, who welcomed the agreement, said in a tweet Friday that he would "count on the UN to ensure proper implementation."
The British foreign secretary, Liz Truss, welcomed the agreement and urged the Kremlin to implement it.
"The UK and our allies have been pushing hard to reach this point. Now this agreement must be implemented, and we will be watching to ensure Russia's actions match its words," Truss said in a statement. "To enable a lasting return to global security and economic stability, Putin must end the war and withdraw from Ukraine."
Aid organizations also welcomed the deal, but said it is only one part of solving the growing global food crisis.
"If respected and enacted in good faith, today's deal to protect Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea will help ease grain shortages, but let's be clear – this will not end or significantly alter the trajectory of the worsening global food crisis," Mercy Corps Chief Executive Tjada D'Oyen McKenna said in a statement.
"A deal that allows grain to leave Black Sea ports is nothing short of life-saving for people across the world who are struggling to feed their families," said International Committee of the Red Cross Director-General Robert Mardini, but he noted that efforts must continue to tame skyrocketing food prices in places like Sudan where they have shot up 187% in the past six months.
VOA’s Jeff Seldin and Margaret Besheer contributed to this report from Washington.