Russia attacked the city of Odesa with a barrage of missiles and drones in the early hours of Wednesday morning, causing significant damage. Reports indicate damage to docks and equipment used to load grain ships. In addition, over 60,000 tons of grain held in storage were reported to have been destroyed in an attack that local officials described as “hellish.”
This is the second straight night that Odesa has been subject to waves of attack. Russia has declared these attacks to be “retribution” for the attack on the Karch Bridge connecting Russia to occupied Crimea. However, by attacking the grain facilities, Russia isn’t just damaging Ukraine: They are attacking every nation and every person whose life depends on grain exports from the highly productive fields of Ukraine. Russia is also directly launching an attack on the stability of global food prices.
At the same time it was launching these attacks, Russia made it clear that it now considered any grain ships in the Black Sea to be subject to attack. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had previously indicated that Turkey would protect grain ships even if Russia failed to cooperate, but it’s uncertain that Turkish vessels will actually risk damage to escort grain ships, or that grain ships would be willing to take the risk.
On Wednesday morning, the Russian ministry of defense issued a statement:
“In connection with the termination of the Black Sea Initiative and the curtailment of the maritime humanitarian corridor, from 00.00 Moscow time on July 20, 2023, all ships en route to Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea waters will be considered as potential carriers of military cargo. The flag countries of such vessels will be considered involved in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of the Kyiv regime.”
The message is clearly meant to convey a threat not only to ships, but to any nation whose flag happens to be on a ship loading Ukrainian grain (which would largely be nations like Liberia and Panama, whose flags are on many commercial vessels). At this stage of the conflict, Russia’s threat against these nations means even less than its endless threats toward those nations that have openly provided the Ukrainian military with everything from tanks to ships to long-range missiles. However, even if the threat against the nations is all bluster, the threat against the ships themselves could be very real. Commercial ships are not designed to square off against warships—even if it’s the Russian navy.
The bigger factor for ships can be summed up in a single word: insurance.
Even if the owners of a ship feel like bearding the Russian dragon in a sea that it has long considered home territory, and even if Turkish naval vessels are tagging along, it’s unlikely that the large international companies that insure ships at sea would be willing to provide coverage for ships heading to Ukrainian ports in these conditions. A ship owner might be willing to put a ship and its crew at risk, but they’re probably not going to do it without the prospect that any disaster will be covered by a check.
According to the U.N., under the terms of the Black Sea agreement, Ukraine has exported 16.9 million tonnes of corn and 8.9 million tonnes of wheat. Over 4.4 million tonnes went to the World Food Program, making Ukraine the primary source of food for the millions of people served by the WFP. Right now that supply line to the rest of the world has been cut off by the direct action of Vladimir Putin.
The attack on Odesa seems designed to underscore the end of the grain deal, but the destruction there hasn’t been limited to the area around the port. In this latest round of attack, the Ukrainian general staff reports that Russia launched:
32 Shahed-136/131 drones from a base in eastern Crimea
16 Kalibr cruise missiles from ships stationed in the Black Sea
Eight Kh-22 cruise missiles from Tu-22M3 “backfire” bombers over the Black Sea
Six P-800 Oniks cruise missiles from coastal batteries in Crimea
One Kh-59 missile from a Su-35 jet over the Black Sea
Ukrainian air defenses reportedly intercepted 23 drones, 13 Kalibr missiles, and the Kh-59. However, that still left 11 drones and a dozen missiles to strike targets around the city. Air defenses in Odesa are good, but the number of devices coming at the city in a coordinated attack clearly overwhelmed those systems.
Putin will not be attending BRICS conference
The Russian dictator may be threatening nations that try to provide grain to a starving world, but he’s also clearly afraid to step outside the boundaries of the areas where people still fear his military.
The next meeting of the “BRICS” nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) is slated to take place in Johannesburg on Aug. 22-24. This group has become more and more important to Russia over the past decade, especially as its CSTO alliance of six former Soviet republics has become more disorganized and less likely to follow Putin’s lead.
The original focus of this conference was to undercut the dollar’s role as the world’s default currency. However, the decline of Russia’s economy (and the sanctions that are allowing other BRICS nations to pick up Russian oil and gas at discount prices) make progress on that front less likely.
Still, Putin was expected to be at the conference in person until March, when the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin. Russia is not a signatory to the ICC (neither is the United States). But South Africa is a member of the ICC, so in theory Putin could be arrested there as soon as he stepped off the plane.
South African leaders have been carefully stepping around the issue for months, unwilling to say if they would assist in or prevent Putin’s arrest. But now the issue appears to be solved because Putin will remain at the other end of a 14,975-kilometer table back in Moscow. Instead, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov will attend the Johannesburg summit.
It seems that when push comes to shove, Putin is unwilling to take the risk. Somebody ought to test that in other ways … maybe, say, someone with a grain ship.
This trenching machine will now be taking a break.
A new U.S. assistance package for Ukraine has been announced. And when is someone going to bring me a good picture of a Phoenix Ghost?
There are reports today that Ukrainian forces have made further advances in and around Klishchiivka, as well as to the south near Andriivka. Waiting for details.