Russia attacks Ukraine grain port ahead of Putin-Erdogan talks

Ukraine downs 17 drones over Izmail port on the Danube River as Russian and Turkish leaders prepare to hold talks on Ukrainian grain exports.

Workers load grain at a grain port in Izmail, Ukraine, on April 26, 2023.
Workers load grain at a grain port in Izmail, Ukraine, on April 26, 2023 [File: Andrew Kravchenko/ AP]

Russia has launched a wave of drone attacks on one of Ukraine’s biggest grain exporting ports, hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were due to hold talks.

Ukraine’s Air Force early on Monday urged residents of Izmail port, one of the country’s two major grain-exporting facilities on the Danube River in the Odesa region, to seek shelter.

Odesa Governor Oleh Kiper later said 17 drones were downed over the southern region, but that the attack caused widespread damage to port infrastructure.

“17 drones were shot down by our air defense forces,” Kiper wrote on Telegram. “But, unfortunately, there are also hits. In several settlements of Izmail district, warehouses and production buildings, agricultural machinery and equipment of industrial enterprises were damaged.”

Kiper added that preliminary information indicated no casualties or injuries.

The drone assault came as Putin and Erdogan were to meet in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi to hold talks on a Ukrainian grain export deal that helped ease a food crisis in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The deal – brokered by the United Nations and Turkey in July 2022 – had allowed nearly 33 million metric tonnes (36 million tonnes) of grain and other commodities to leave three Ukrainian ports despite the Russian invasion.

But Moscow quit the agreement about six weeks ago, complaining that its food and fertiliser exports faced obstacles and that not enough Ukrainian grain was going to countries in need.

Since then, it has launched frequent attacks on the ports of the Danube River, which has emerged as Ukraine’s major route for exporting grain.

Monday’s attack – the scale of which was not immediately known – followed Russian attacks on Sunday on the other major Danube port of Reni, in which the port’s infrastructure was damaged and at least two people were injured.

A top aide to Erdogan told Turkey’s A Haber television channel on Sunday that the meeting between the Russian and Turkish leaders will “play the most important role” in reviving the grain corridor.

“The current status [of the grain deal] will be discussed at the summit on Monday. We are cautious, but we hope to achieve success because this is a situation that affects the entire world,” said Alif Cagatay Kilic, Erdogan’s chief foreign policy and security adviser.

Erdogan – who has maintained close ties to Putin during the 18-month war, including by refusing to join Western sanctions against Russia – has repeatedly pledged to revive the Black Sea deal.

The Turkish president has previously indicated sympathy with Putin’s position, saying in July that the Russian leader had “certain expectations from Western countries” over the grain deal and that it was “crucial for these countries to take action in this regard”.

Russia has said that if demands to improve its exports of grain and fertiliser were met, it would consider resurrecting the Black Sea agreement. While Russian exports of food and fertiliser are not subject to Western sanctions, Moscow has said restrictions on payments, logistics and insurance have hindered shipments.

One of Russia’s main demands is for the Russian Agricultural Bank to be reconnected to the SWIFT international payments system. The European Union cut it off in June 2022.

The United Nations has also stepped up its efforts to revive the deal.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Thursday that he had sent a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with “concrete proposals” aimed at getting Moscow’s exports to global markets.

But Russian officials said they were not satisfied with the letter.

A Russian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Reuters news agency that “there are no revelations” in Guterres’s letter to Lavrov and that it just “sums up of previous UN ideas, which didn’t fly”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies