In response to threats from Moscow, Kyiv has warned that all ships calling at Russian-controlled ports in the Black Sea “may be considered by Ukraine as carrying military cargo with all the relevant risks”.
The warning, issued in a statement on Thursday by Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence, said this takes effect at midnight on Friday (21:00 GMT Thursday).
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In its message, the Ukraine ministry also recalled the fate of the Russian cruiser Moskva, which was sunk by missiles more than a year ago. The Ukrainian navy has already used naval drones several times against the Russian Black Sea fleet and presumably also against the bridge to the Crimea peninsula.
Earlier, Russia had also threatened ships calling at Ukrainian ports, withdrawing their previous security guarantees.
Russia said ships travelling to Ukraine’s Black Sea ports will be considered potential military targets, as Kyiv said it would set up a temporary shipping route to continue grain exports following Moscow’s withdrawal from a deal that permitted food shipments from Ukraine’s ports.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Wednesday that it would deem all ships travelling to Ukraine to be potentially carrying military cargo on behalf of Kyiv and “the flag countries of such ships will be considered parties to the Ukrainian conflict”.
In a statement on the Telegram messaging app, the defence ministry said it would implement its new stance towards ships in the Black Sea starting at midnight Moscow time (21:00 GMT Wednesday).
The defence ministry did not say what actions it might take towards ships travelling to Ukraine.
Russia also declared southeastern and northwestern parts of the Black Sea’s international waters to be temporarily unsafe for navigation, the ministry said, without giving details about the parts of the sea which would be affected.
Ukraine said on Wednesday it was establishing a temporary shipping route via Romania, one of the neighbouring Black Sea countries.
“Its goal is to facilitate the unblocking of international shipping in the northwestern part of the Black Sea,” Vasyl Shkurakov, Ukraine’s acting minister for communities, territories and infrastructure development, said in a letter to the United Nations shipping agency, the International Maritime Organization.
Reporting for Al Jazeera from Moscow, Yulia Shapovalova said that Russia’s defence ministry issued a statement addressing all international ships travelling towards Ukrainian ports and stating that “at midnight, July the 20th, all ships sailing in the Black Sea and approaching Ukrainian ports will be considered carriers of military cargo involved in the Ukrainian conflict on the Kyiv side.”
The announcement from Moscow on Wednesday came as a senior White House official said that Russia was considering attacking civilian ships on the Black Sea and then putting the blame on Ukrainian forces.
“Our information indicates that Russia laid additional sea mines in the approaches to Ukrainian ports,” White House National Security Council spokesman Adam Hodge said in a statement, the Associated Press news agency reported.
“We believe that this is a coordinated effort to justify any attacks against civilian ships in the Black Sea and lay blame on Ukraine for these attacks,” Hodge said.
Russia was using food as a “weapon of war”, US state department spokesman Matthew Miller also said on Wednesday, noting that Moscow had made threats against ships in international waters on two consecutive days and attacked the Ukrainian port city of Odesa for two nights in a row.
“I think it ought to be quite clear to everyone in the world right now that Russia is using food as a weapon of war,” Miller told reporters. “Not just against the Ukrainian people, but against all the people in the world, especially the most underdeveloped countries who depend on grain from the region,” he said.
UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the Russian warning to shipping “underscores that we’re trying to work and continue to work in what is effectively a warzone”.
Black Sea grain deal
The beginning of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last year saw Ukraine’s Black Sea ports blockaded by warships until the Black Sea grain deal, brokered by the UN and Turkey, re-opened Ukraine’s ports and the exports of Ukrainian grain to global markets.
The Kremlin said it was exiting the deal on Monday, after months of complaining that a related agreement allowing for the export of Russian food and fertilisers had not been honoured.
Moscow had also accused Ukraine of using the Black Sea grain corridor for “combat purposes”.
Russia’s withdrawal from the agreement has been internationally condemned, as it revived fears of rising grain and food prices. Poorer countries in Africa in particular are dependent on Ukrainian grain.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said once again on Wednesday that Moscow would not return to the one-year-old deal unless certain demands were met.
Those include assurances that Russian fertilisers and food exports could reach the global market. The US and the European Union deny that their sanctions are prohibiting the export of the commodities.
Earlier on Wednesday, Russia launched a massive missile and drone attack on the Ukrainian port city of Odesa for the second night in a row.
Odesa was the main point of departure for Ukrainian agricultural exports under the now-defunct grain agreement.
Port facilities with a grain terminal and a cooking oil terminal were hit, the Ukrainian military said, as well as storage tanks and ship-loading facilities. In the Odesa city area, storage buildings were destroyed, it said.
“We haven’t seen such a big attack since the beginning of the large-scale [Russian] invasion.” Odesa Mayor Hennadiy Trukhanov wrote on Facebook on Wednesday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the attacks on Odesa had destroyed approximately 60,000 tonnes of grain, and Moscow was attacking the port deliberately after withdrawing from the grain export deal.
Today's 🇷🇺 terrorists' attack on Odesa proves that their target is not only 🇺🇦, and not only the lives of our people. About a million tons of food is stored in the ports that were attacked today. This is the volume that should have been delivered to consumer countries in Africa… pic.twitter.com/7jbz9TaqKg
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) July 19, 2023
“Russian terrorists are absolutely deliberately targeting the grain agreement infrastructure, and every Russian missile is a blow not only to Ukraine but to everyone in the world who aspires to a normal and safe life,” he wrote on Telegram.
Zelenskyy later used his nightly address to the nation on Wednesday to appeal for Western partners to help Ukraine bolster its air defences in order to counter attacks like the one Odesa experienced.