As Russia resumes its blockade of ships carrying food from Ukraine, its military bombarded Odesa and an adjoining port late Tuesday and early Wednesday — specifically targeting the ability to export grain, Ukrainian officials said.
Hours later, Russia’s Ministry of Defense issued a warning to ship operators and other nations suggesting that any attempt to bypass the blockade might be seen as an act of war.
As of midnight, “all ships en route to Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea will be considered as potential carriers of military cargo,” it said in a statement. “Accordingly, the flag countries of such vessels will be considered involved in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of the Kyiv regime.” The ministry added that even parts of the Black Sea in international waters “have been declared temporarily dangerous for navigation.”
Ukrainian officials accused Russia of using food as leverage in the war, in an attempt to extend Ukraine’s pain to the rest of the globe.
“The night strike knocked out a significant part of the grain export infrastructure of the port of Chornomorsk,” just south of Odesa, Mykola Solskyi, Ukraine’s agriculture minister said in a statement, adding that experts estimated the damage would take at least a year to repair. In Chornomorsk, just south of Odesa, “60,000 tons of grain were also destroyed, which was supposed to be loaded on a large-tonnage ship” and shipped out two months ago, he added.
Moscow on Monday pulled out of a U.N.-brokered agreement that had allowed Ukraine to export grain across the Black Sea for the past year, helping alleviate global shortages and price spikes. Russia’s navy has prevented all other shipping from entering or leaving Ukrainian ports, and Russian authorities have inspected grain ships to ensure that they were not carrying military equipment.
“Every Russian missile is a blow not only to Ukraine, but to everyone in the world who wants a normal and safe life,” Mr. Zelensky said Wednesday on the Telegram messaging app.
Russian forces fired at least 30 cruise missiles and 32 attack drones at Ukraine overnight, primarily from ships on the Black Sea, Ukraine’s Air Force said, adding that Ukrainian forces had intercepted 14 of the missiles and 23 of the drones. It was the second straight night of concentrated attacks on Odesa, Ukraine’s largest port, and other shipping centers.
“It was a hellish night,” Serhiy Bratchuk, a spokesman for the Odesa regional military administration, said in a video message posted on social media. He called the attack “very powerful, truly massive” and said it might have been the largest attack on the city since Russia’s full-scale invasion began.
On Tuesday, Moscow denied that the previous night’s barrage was related to the just-suspended grain deal, calling it a “mass retaliatory strike” on facilities used to manufacture attack drones, particularly the naval drones used in an assault on Monday on the bridge linking Russia to the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula.
In the bombardment into Wednesday morning, blast waves from one intercepted missile damaged several buildings and injured civilians, according to the Ukrainian military. Port infrastructure, including a grain and oil terminal, tanks and loading equipment, were damaged, the military said, and tobacco and fireworks warehouses were also hit. Odesa’s city government said that 10 people needed medical help, including a 9-year-old boy.
Drones shot down by antiaircraft gunners lit up the night sky like a deadly fireworks display as families huddled in corridors and bathrooms. At resort hotels that flank the port, guests were rushed through kitchens and past sun loungers to shelters.
One missile sailed past the cranes and warehouses in the shipyard and crashed into the burial site of Iryna Pustovarova’s father. After the sun rose, she went to check on cemetery, but had to wait for bomb disposal technicians to ensure that there was no unexploded ordnance. Even the dead, the 19-year-old said, tears streaming down her face, cannot rest in peace in Ukraine.
Russia also launched a wave of drones on Wednesday at Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, but all were destroyed by the city’s air defenses, said Serhiy Popko, the head of the city’s military administration.
In Crimea, a major fire at a military training ground prompted the evacuations of at least 2,000 residents and the closure of a highway, according to Sergei Aksyonov, the Russia-appointed head of Crimea. It was not immediately clear if the fire resulted from a Ukrainian attack.
Russia’s ability to strike critical infrastructure reflects the patchy nature of Ukraine’s air defenses, which are dense around Kyiv and some other locations, but sparse elsewhere.
“We can cover Odesa ports, Kyiv region, Dnipro, Lviv,” Yurii Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, said in an appearance on Ukrainian television. “But we cannot block all directions from which missiles fly into Ukraine.”
Before war, Ukraine and Russia were among the world’s biggest exporters of grain, cooking oil and fertilizer, and were particularly crucial suppliers to parts of Africa and the Middle East. With the Russian blockade of Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia, those exports plummeted early last year, worsening global shortages, sending prices soaring and raising fears of famine.
The grain deal struck in July 2022 allowed Ukrainian shipments to resume, and the United Nations says the country has exported almost 33 million tons of grain by sea since then. Ukraine has also stepped up exports by train, truck and river barge.
The agreement also included steps to ease Russian agricultural exports, but the Kremlin has complained frequently that the measures were insufficient.
On Monday, Moscow made good on repeated threats to pull out of the deal. The U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the decision.
Chicago wheat futures, a global benchmark price, rose by as much as 9 percent on Wednesday following Russia’s statement, their biggest upward percentage move since the war broke out in February of last year. But with global supplies more plentiful than last year, prices remain well below levels reached when the war first began.
On Wednesday, the United States said it will send $1.3 billion in financial assistance to Kyiv in order to purchase a host of new military equipment and ammunition, including four additional air-defense missile systems called NASAMS, jointly produced by the United States and Norway; more 152-millimeter artillery shells for Ukraine’s older Soviet-era howitzers; anti-tank missiles; attack drones and equipment for clearing land mines.
More ammunition and mine clearance are among the Ukrainian military’s most pressing needs in its counteroffensive, which so far has gained little ground.
But far from the battlefields, there were signs of vulnerability for Moscow.
The Kremlin announced that President Vladimir V. Putin would not attend a diplomatic summit in person next month in South Africa, a decision that allows the host nation to avoid the difficult decision of whether to arrest the Russian leader, who is the subject of an international warrant on war crimes charges.
And, in a speech to a Politico event in Prague, Richard Moore, the head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency, in a rare public appearance, said Mr. Putin had “cut a deal to save his skin” and end the mutiny last month by the Wagner mercenary group and its leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin.
“I think he probably feels under some pressure,” Mr. Moore said of Mr. Putin, speaking at the British ambassador’s residence in the Czech capital. “Prigozhin was his creature, utterly created by Putin, and yet he turned on him.”
Marc Santora reported from Odesa, Ukraine, Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London and Joe Rennison from New York. Reporting was contributed by John Ismay from Washington and John Eligon from Johannesburg.