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Russia Batters Ukraine’s Ability to Export Grain in Black Sea Confrontation

Russia barraged Ukrainian ports for the fourth night in a row on Friday, striking granaries in Odesa and mounting a show of naval force on the Black Sea in a deepening showdown that imperils a vital part of the global food supply.

The Kremlin this week withdrew from a year-old agreement that allows ships carrying food from Ukrainian ports to bypass a Russian blockade, and began a concentrated bombardment of facilities used to ship grain and cooking oil across the Black Sea. The Russian military warned that any vessels attempting to reach Ukraine would be treated as hostile, and their nations “will be considered to be involved in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of the Kyiv regime.”

On Friday, Russia conducted naval exercises in the northwestern Black Sea — the part near the coastline Ukraine still holds — backing up the suggestion that it could seize or destroy cargo ships of noncombatant nations. Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that a missile boat fired anti-ship cruise missiles and destroyed a “mock target” vessel, while ships and planes of the Black Sea Fleet “practiced isolating an area temporarily closed to navigation” and conducted a drill “to apprehend a mock intruder ship.”

Missile strikes around dawn destroyed 100 tons of peas and 20 tons of barley at the port in Odesa, according to Oleg Kiper, the head of the regional military administration. That came two days after an attack on a port just outside Odesa destroyed 60,000 tons of grain to be loaded onto ships, the government said — enough to feed more than 270,000 people for a year, according to the World Food Program.

“The new wave of attacks on Ukrainian ports risks having far-reaching impacts on global food security, in particular in developing countries,” Rosemary DiCarlo, under-secretary-general of the United Nations, told an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Friday. “Furthermore, as we have repeatedly stated, attacks against civilian infrastructure may constitute a violation of international law.”

The U.N. humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, warned the council that even escalatory rhetoric threatened to increase food prices and food instability around the globe. Prices have risen this week, but not as sharply as they did when the war began, and economists say the effect could be serious but not as severe because global supplies are more plentiful. Ukraine has stepped up its overland exports, but not nearly enough to compensate for the loss of shipping.

Russia would readily renew the deal, its representative at the U.N. meeting said, but only if other nations lift penalties imposed on it for invading Ukraine 17 months ago — conditions unlikely to be met.

On Friday, Russia’s central bank signaled concern about its economy, particularly inflation, raising its benchmark interest rate a full percentage point, to 8.5 percent — a much bigger increase than analysts had expected. The central bank projected relatively healthy 2.5 percent economic growth this year, after contraction by a similar rate last year. But the rebound has been fueled by the government pumping money into the economy with sharply higher military spending, including payments to soldiers and their families, and social programs like mortgage subsidies.

Russians have more cash to spend but not enough to spend it on, spurring inflation that the central bank predicted would reach 5 to 6.5 percent this year. Sanctions have made it harder for businesses to import products, including manufacturing equipment, and the conscription or flight from the country of hundreds of thousands of people has made it harder to hire workers.

Ukraine and Russia have long produced a major part of the global food supply — before the war, they accounted for about one-quarter of the world’s wheat and barley exports and a large share of its cooking oil, particularly sunflower oil, and Russia was the largest supplier of fertilizer. Russia’s blockade of Ukraine, and Western sanctions against Russia, caused their exports to fall sharply early last year, worsening shortages and price spikes around the world, and threatening famine in some areas, particularly in East Africa.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative, brokered in July 2022 by the United Nations and Turkey, allowed ships carrying food to depart Ukrainian ports, and contained provisions to enable Russian agricultural exports. But the Kremlin has complained that the elements benefiting Russia were woefully inadequate or not fully honored, keeping exports down and forcing Russian producers to sell to the world at below-market prices — favoring European competitors.

For months, Moscow has made a set of demands for continuing the grain initiative: Allow Russia’s state-owned agricultural bank to rejoin the SWIFT messaging system that enables international transactions; ensure that foreign insurance and shipping companies can do business with Russian agricultural exporters without violating sanctions; allow Russia to resume importing spare parts for agricultural equipment; end sanctions against Russian fertilizer producers and their executives; and restore a pipeline carrying Russian ammonia to Odesa.

There must be “real and not theoretical lifting of sanctions,” Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, said at the Security Council meeting on Friday, citing some of the same demands. “As soon as all of these conditions are met, we will immediately reach the deal.”

But Russia’s actions go well beyond just halting the grain deal, threatening other Black Sea shipping and wounding Ukraine’s ability to send food by sea in the near future, launching wave after wave of missiles and attack drones at port facilities this week. Russian missile and artillery assaults on other parts of the country overnight killed eight people, Ukrainian officials said.

Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum on Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said, “Russia by weaponizing food is doing something truly unconscionable.”

In Moscow, Sergei Vershinin, a deputy foreign minister, told reporters at a briefing that the grain deal would not be revived unless Russian demands were met, and that in the meantime, Russia might stop and inspect civilian ships on the Black Sea for military cargo.

On Thursday, the White House warned that Moscow could be preparing a false-flag operation to attack civilian ships and blame Ukraine. The threats have stalled marine traffic in the area. Tracking data shows that ships that had been heading for the Black Sea are sitting in ports in Istanbul, waiting to see if an agreement to resume grain shipments can be reached.

Mr. Vershinin said there were no talks underway yet, but that President Vladimir V. Putin and the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey were expected to discuss the issue soon.

He accused Ukraine of having misused the safe passage corridor meant for grain ships to launch attack drones against a naval base in Russian-occupied Crimea, and the bridge linking Crimea to Russia proper. Ukraine has denied using the corridor for military purposes.

The Institute for the Study of War, based in Washington, wrote in an assessment published on Thursday night that “the Kremlin likely views the Black Sea Grain Initiative as one of its few remaining avenues of leverage against the West.” Russia, it added, is “attempting to create a sense of urgency by conducting intensifying strikes against Ukrainian port and grain infrastructure and threatening to strike civilian ships.”

Russia has been unsettled since last month’s failed mutiny by the Wagner mercenary group against the military leadership, which has prompted the ouster of some top commanders and called into question what was seen as Mr. Putin’s iron grip.

“For a lot of Russians watching this, used to this image of Putin as the arbiter of order, the question was, ‘Does the emperor have no clothes?’” the C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, told the Aspen Security Forum on Friday, in his most extensive public comments on the mutiny. “Or, at least, ‘Why is it taking so long for him to get dressed?’”

Mr. Burns said he expected Mr. Putin to eventually punish the Wagner leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who has remained free and unharmed.

Igor Girkin, an ultranationalist commentator who has been a pro-war critic of the way the invasion has been conducted, was arrested on Friday, signaling that the one form of public dissent the government has allowed may no longer be permitted. Prosecutors charged him with disseminating public appeals to engage in extremist activities, punishable by up to five years in prison, and asked a Moscow court to keep him in pretrial detention.

Belarus, Russia’s closest ally, has taken in some Wagner fighters in the last few weeks, and they are training Belarusian special operations troops, the government of Belarus said on Thursday. The training site is just three miles from Poland, a NATO member with deep distrust for both Belarus and Russia.

In response, Poland said on Friday that it would move military forces near the border with Belarus. Mr. Putin, in turn, lashed out at Poland, saying that Russia would respond to “aggression” against Belarus “with all means at our disposal.”

Ivan Nechepurenko reported from Tbilisi, Georgia, Victoria Kim from Seoul and Farnaz Fassihi and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York. Reporting was contributed by Anatoly Kurmanaev from Berlin; Neil MacFarquhar, Gaya Gupta and James C. McKinley Jr. from New York; Eric Schmitt, David E. Sanger and Julian E. Barnes from Aspen, Colo.; Shashank Bengali from London and Erin Mendell from Seoul.

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