Ukraine war: Ukrainian grain facilities attacked, Russian naval drills in Baltic Sea, Black Sea deal

August 2, 2023  -Russian drones yesterday targeted grain infrastructure in southern Ukraine close to the border of NATO member Romania, according to the Ukrainian military.

Iranian-made “Shahed” (Martyr) drones, launched from the Black Sea, hit the Odesa region at dawn, causing a huge fire at export facilities and damaging a grain elevator. A grain silo was also reportedly hit.

The incident came as another major explosive drone attack targeted Kyiv overnight.

Russian forces have repeatedly battered Ukraine’s Black Sea and river port infrastructure in recent weeks, especially the city of Odesa. Vital supplies of Ukrainian grain are exported from the area to the rest of the world.

These bombardments began in July after Moscow terminated a deal – brokered by the UN and Turkey – which allowed Ukraine to export 33 million tons of cereals despite the Russian invasion.

A blockade has now been reinstated and both sides have warned they will attack ships heading to enemy ports.

River ports in the Odesa region bordering Romania have become the main alternative exit route for Ukrainian agricultural products since Russia torpedoed the deal.

But these sites have also become targets. In July, a river port in Reni was attacked by Russian drones, while one was hit on the Danube today.

Russia starts naval manoeuvres in Baltic Sea

Russia has begun naval exercises involving around 50 ships and aircraft in the Baltic Sea, an expanse of water now bordered by NATO countries whom Moscow considers an existential threat.

“Ocean Shield 2023” will mobilise “more than 30 ships and combat vessels, 20 supply ships, 30 aircraft… and around 6,000 soldiers”, said Russia’s Ministry of Defence.

The objective is to “verify the ability of the military fleet to defend the national interests of Russia”, it added in a press release broadcast on Telegram, which did not specify how long the exercise would last.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, countries around the Baltic Sea have closed ranks against Moscow. Finland and Sweden have both asked to join NATO, with the former now a bona fide member.

Belarus violates Polish airspace, claims Warsaw

Poland said two Belarusian helicopters violated its airspace on Tuesday, and said it would beef up its military presence on the two countries’ border as a result.

“The violation took place in the Bialowieza region at very low altitude, complicating radar detection,” Poland’s Defence ministry explained.

It also announced military personnel on the border with Belarus would be reinforced, claiming “hybrid attacks” could be launched against Poland from the authoritarian Russian ally’s territory.

Belarus’s Ministry of Defence called the accusations an attempt by Polish officials “to justify once again the increase in forces and means near the Belarusian border”.

Poland and its neighbours on NATO’s eastern flank have expressed concerns about the potential threat posed by Belarus, now home to the Russian mercenary group Wagner.

Speaking to Euronews on Monday, Dr Stephen Hall, lecturer of Russian politics at the University of Bath, warned of a possible Wagner attack from Belarus on Poland, which could cut off the Baltics from NATO.

However, he doubted such a “suicidal” step would be taken.

Turkey’s Erdogan calls on Putin to avoid escalation

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday called on his Russian counterpart to avoid measures that could escalate tensions with Ukraine in the Black Sea.

According to Erdogan’s Presidential Office, Turkey’s leader stressed the “importance” of the landmark grain deal, which he called a “bridge for peace”.

Erdogan, himself one of the negotiators of the Black Sea deal, said he would continue his efforts to revive talks following Russia’s exit from the arrangement in July.

“The prolonged stoppage of the Black Sea Initiative does not benefit anyone and countries in need of grain and with low incomes will suffer the most,” he was quoted as saying by the Presidential Office.

Erdogan claimed “grain prices fell by 23% when the corridor was operating” between August 2022 and July, though they “have increased by 15% in the last two weeks”.

On Wednesday, Putin asked Erdogan to help export Russian cereals – effectively circumventing Western sanctions – but he refused to revive the grain deal.

The Kremlin wants the West to lift restrictions on Russia’s agricultural sector, including restoring its access to the the SWIFT banking system.

At the end of July, the Russian president promised to deliver cereals to several African countries free of charge.

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