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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ukraine presses on with plan for grain shipments after Russian attack

Ukrainian soldiers in a village retaken from Russia near the border of Mykolaiv and Kherson Oblast.

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Eric Nagourney

Ukraine is pressing ahead with its plan to resume grain exports across the Black Sea despite a Russian missile attack on the port of Odesa that raised doubts about the viability of an international agreement aimed at easing a global food shortage.

Millions of tons of grain in Ukraine’s ports have been held hostage by the war, but a deal struck Friday in Istanbul that involved Turkey and the United Nations appeared to offer hope, especially for the countries in Africa and the Middle East most reliant on the country’s exports.

The missile strike Saturday, which damaged infrastructure at the port, called into question the viability of the plan to free some 20 million tons of grain trapped at ports on the Black Sea. But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other officials insisted Monday that Ukraine would move forward with shipments, while denouncing Russia’s strike on Odesa.

“The whole world saw that even 24 hours hadn’t passed as shelling and missile strikes at the seaports of Ukraine began,” Zelenskyy said in a statement. “For our part, we have done everything, prepared everything.”

Russia said the strike was aimed at a military installation at the port, not facilities for grain shipments.

Under the agreement, Ukrainian captains would be protected as they sail their ships out of the port — which was seeded with mines to impede an assault on the city — and into the Black Sea, where the Russian navy is dominant.

A spokesman for the regional military administration in Odesa, Serhii Bratchuk, said at a news conference that the port was “working on putting together some vessel caravans. These vessel caravans will be in charge of delivering on the commitments assumed within the agreements reached.”

Security remained paramount, and the port would not be fully unblocked, he said. “We are talking only about a corridor that will be functioning and will be utilized to export Ukrainian grain.”

The agreement to open the port to grain exports took months of negotiation and at times appeared doomed. Under the deal, a joint command center with officials from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations will be set up in Istanbul to monitor the movements of the grain flotillas. The ships will head into Turkish waters to be inspected by officials.

A spokesman for the United Nations said the U.N. would have a presence in the command center by Tuesday.

“We expect the first ships may move within a few days,” said the spokesman, Farhan Haqall.

Hunger in parts of the world far from the conflict is just one of the far-reaching consequences of the decision by President Vladimir Putin of Russia to invade Ukraine five months ago. The war has also strengthened NATO, given the European Union a new focus, sent energy prices soaring, slowed global growth, redrawn alliances, and left Moscow weakened and isolated by sanctions.

On Sunday, Moscow sent Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on a four-day trip to Africa to make the case that the West, and not Russia, is to blame for grain shortages. He said poorer countries were being victimized by wealthier ones.

“We know that the African colleagues do not approve of the undisguised attempts of the U.S. and their European satellites to gain the upper hand, and to impose a unipolar world order to the international community,” Lavrov wrote in an article published in newspapers in the four countries he was visiting: Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo.

Some governments in Africa and the Middle East are wary of alienating either side in the conflict, both because of a desire to maintain access to Russian grain and other exports and because of a policy of preserving friendly ties with Moscow that often dates back to the Soviet era.

A growing Ukrainian counteroffensive aimed at retaking territory in another coastal province, Kherson, risks further complicating the grain export plan. In a sign of the intensification of fighting in the south, Ukraine ordered the evacuation of residents from Shevchenkove, a village it controls near the front line in Mykolaiv province, the Mykolaiv city council said Monday. The residents were ordered to go to Odesa.

Ukraine’s military said Monday that its aircraft had attacked five Russian targets in Kherson province in the last 24 hours.

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