Russian forces struck a grain terminal and injured at least four civilians in the southern city of Kherson, Ukrainian officials said on Saturday, extending a bombardment of Ukrainian infrastructure that has raised alarms about Kyiv’s ability to ship grain to the world.
President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to enhance Ukrainian air defenses around the port and the southern coast, but Kyiv’s resources are stretched thin and it must make difficult choices about where to deploy the limited number of air defense systems that are able to shoot down Russia’s most sophisticated missiles.
The Ukrainians continue to issue pleas to their Western partners to speed the delivery of more air defense systems and warn that if Russia continues it bombardment, Ukraine could be left without the infrastructure needed to ship grain even if Black Sea shipping lanes open up. Moscow has struck Ukrainian ports near daily since pulling out of a deal last week that allowed Ukraine to ship its grain despite the war.
“In two or three months, we may not have a single port left,” Natalia Humeniuk, the spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military southern command, told French journalists this week. “They want to dominate the Black Sea. They want to have a monopoly on grain,” she said.
On Saturday, she said that Ukraine has taken measures to better protect the ports but warned that Russia may once again be adjusting its tactics before striking again.
The attack reported Saturday hit a grain terminal in the Beryslav district and was just one of 29 attacks by Russian forces directed at Kherson in the past 24 hours using mortars, artillery, tanks and aircraft, the Ukrainian military said.
The bombardment of the port city came as tensions in the waters off the southern coast of Ukraine continued to rise, with Ukraine accusing Russian warships of threatening a civilian vessel and Russia’s Black Sea Fleet running drills off Ukraine’s southern coast this month. Moscow has warned that any ships sailing to Ukraine’s ports would be considered potentially hostile.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington based-think tank, said on Friday that the Russian naval posture in the Black Sea was “likely intentionally ambiguous to generate widespread concern about possible detention by the Russian navy or outright strikes on civilian vessels.”
“The Kremlin likely aims for this posturing to have a chilling effect on maritime activity so that Russian naval assets do not need to enforce an actual blockade of Ukrainian ports,” the analysts wrote.
Ukrainian border guards said they had intercepted a threatening message from a Russian warship communicating on an open channel to a civilian ship. The claim was amplified by Russian military bloggers who replayed a recording of the message. The message and the claim could not be independently verified.
Ukraine has vowed to step up its efforts to target Russian warships and vessels using Russian ports and has been working to expand its fleet of naval drones, which it has used to attack and harass the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
In an apparent recognition of the danger they pose, the Russian authorities announced a nighttime navigation ban for all small vessels near the Kerch Strait. This month, Ukraine employed naval drones in an attack on the bridge that spans the strait, leaving the roadway badly damaged. The rail line over the bridge, however, continues to work and Ukraine has vowed to continue mounting attacks on the only land link between Russia and its occupation forces in the Crimean Peninsula.
Against this backdrop, it seemed unlikely that Moscow would bend to international pressure and rejoin a deal that for nearly a year had allowed Ukraine to export tens of millions of tons of grain from its ports. Moscow has complained that the deal is one-sided in Ukraine’s favor, and that Western sanctions imposed after its invasion of Ukraine have continued to restrict the sale of its own agricultural products.
Still, African leaders meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in St. Petersburg on Friday urged that the Black Sea grain deal be revived, saying that the continent was disproportionately affected by disruptions to the global food supply, while stopping short of directly criticizing Moscow for pulling out of the agreement.
“The grain deal must be extended for the benefit of all the peoples of the world, Africans in particular,” Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairman of the African Union Commission, said at a Russia-Africa summit on Friday. “This conflict is now directly affecting us as well,” President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa said.
President Azali Assoumani of Comoros, the chairman of the African Union, said Russia’s promise of free grain for six African nations announced this week was “important but maybe not enough.”
Here is what else is happening in the war: