Russia pauses grain deal after Ukraine strikes warships in Sevastopol

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Russia has suspended its participation in a UN-brokered deal that allowed Ukraine to export its grain and other agricultural products from Black Sea ports after it alleged that Kyiv used the corridor to attack Kremlin ships, renewing concerns about global food security uncertainty.

The Russian military accused Ukrainian forces of using drones to attack “military and civilian” ships near Sevastopol in Crimea in the early hours of Saturday, claiming the strikes were carried out “with the participation of British experts”.

Russia’s foreign ministry said separately that due to the attack, it “will no longer guarantee the safety of civilian cargo ships participating in the Black Sea Grain Initiative and will suspend its implementation from today for an indefinite period of time.”

Britain responded to the accusation of drone attacks by saying Russia was making “false claims of an epic scale”. Ukraine has not officially claimed responsibility for the attacks.

A video that appeared on Ukrainian Telegram channels on Saturday shows a naval drone targeting what appears to be the Russian frigate Admiral Makarov. The Makarov reportedly replaced the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet flagship, the Moskva, which sank in April after Ukrainian forces hit it with Neptune anti-ship missiles. The Washington Post was unable to independently verify the authenticity of this video.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the drone attacks were largely repelled and only one minesweeper suffered minor damage.

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Moscow and Kyiv signed the grain deal in July, opening Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to exports that were halted after Russia invaded the country on February 24.

Turkey played a key role in brokering the deal as it has close ties to Russia and Ukraine and has sought to raise its diplomatic profile to broker talks between the warring countries.

As part of the deal, Ukrainian pilots ferried ships through the port, which Ukraine mined earlier in the war to prevent Russia from seizing key ports such as Odessa. The United States and Ukraine have also accused the Russian navy of laying mines near the Ukrainian coast.

The ships were then given safe passage by the Russian military to sail to Turkey, which organized teams with experts from all involved countries to inspect the ships before they left for their destinations. Ships going to Ukraine were also inspected for weapons, a condition Moscow imposed to ensure the grain corridor was not used to deliver Western arms to Ukraine.

More than 8 million tonnes of grain were exported from Ukraine as part of the deal, which has sent global food prices plummeting, according to the United Nations.

“It is vital that all parties refrain from any action that would jeopardize the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which is a critical humanitarian effort that is clearly having a positive impact on access to food for millions of people around the world,” Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the Secretary-General of the UN Antonio Guterres said in a statement.

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Negotiations to extend the deal were strained even before the ship attacks, as Moscow indicated it might withdraw from the deal after repeated complaints about its implementation.

In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin floated the idea of ​​capping the deal, saying the goods were going to the European Union and not to poor countries experiencing acute food shortages.

Erdogan echoed Putin’s complaints, adding that he also wanted to see Russian grain exported.

“The fact that grain supplies go to the countries that apply these sanctions [against Moscow] worries Mr. Putin. We also want grain supplies to start from Russia,” Erdogan said at a press conference. “The grain that comes as part of this grain deal unfortunately goes to the rich countries, not the poor countries.”

After the explosion of the strategic bridge linking Crimea to mainland Russia in early October, Putin speculated that the grain corridor may have been used by Ukrainian special services to attack the highly symbolic portal. If proven, he suggested, it would jeopardize the agreement.

Putin blamed Kyiv for the attack on the strategic Crimean bridge

Later in October, Gennady Gatilov, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said Russian-flagged ships were not being accepted in European ports because of sanctions and complained of difficulties in obtaining insurance and financing for Russian grain and fertilizer shipments.

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Ukraine, in turn, accused Moscow of not fully fulfilling the deal. In one of his late-night addresses last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia was “deliberately delaying the passage of ships,” creating an artificial backlog of more than 150 vessels.

Zelensky said the situation with food exports from Ukraine was becoming “increasingly tense” and that Moscow was “doing everything to slow down” the process.

“I believe that with these actions, Russia is deliberately fueling the food crisis so that it becomes as acute as it was in the first half of this year,” Zelensky said.

Last week, Ukraine also accused Russia of blocking the full implementation of the deal, saying Ukrainian ports have recently been operating at 25-30 percent of capacity.

“Russia is deliberately blocking the full implementation of the Grain Initiative,” the country’s infrastructure ministry said at the time.

In a Saturday tweet, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Moscow was using a “false pretext” to stop Ukraine from exporting its grain and other agricultural products.

“We warned of Russia’s plans to derail the Black Sea Grain Initiative,” Kuleba wrote. He also called on the world community to “demand that Russia stop its hunger games and recommit to its obligations.”

Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff of the Ukrainian president, said Moscow was engaged in “blackmail” with the help of food, energy and nuclear materials, which he described as “primitive”.

David Stern contributed to this report.

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