The Kremlin on Monday said it was exiting a major agreement allowing Ukraine grain exports hours after drones struck Russia’s only bridge connecting its mainland to the annexed Crimea peninsula.
Moscow said the deadly Kerch bridge attack had nothing to do with its withdrawal and for months has complained about the implementation of the pact, which was designed to ease fears of food shortages in vulnerable countries.
“The grain deal has ceased. As soon as the Russian part (of the agreements) are fulfilled, the Russian side will immediately return to the grain deal,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, adding the move was not linked to the strike.
The announcement came hours after drones struck the sole road link connecting Russia to the annexed Crimea peninsula, a key supply line for Russian forces resupplying frontlines in the south of Ukraine.
Kyiv’s navy and SBU security service carried out a “special operation” using seaborne drones, a security service source told AFP.
Russian authorities said a civilian couple was killed and their daughter wounded in the attack on the bridge, which was also damaged last year in a blast that Moscow blamed on Kyiv.
Crimea bridge blast
Local officials said traffic had been halted and asked tourists to stay in their lodgings. Officials encouraged Russians travelling to and from Crimea to travel through occupied Ukrainian territory.
The Kremlin noted Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered “repair and restoration work” on the bridge and help for people stuck in traffic.
Over the course of the last year, the Black Sea Grain Initiative has enabled the export in cargo of more than 32 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain.
But those transports have come to a halt because of Russia’s refusal so far to renew the deal.
“The applications have not been approved by all parties,” said a statement from the Joint Coordination Centre (JCC) that oversees the agreement. “No new ships have been approved to participate since 27 June.”
Putin just last week signalled Russia’s intention to terminate the agreement saying Moscow’s interests were being ignored under the deal brokered by the UN and Turkey.
Moscow also notified Turkey, Ukraine and the UN that it was against extending the deal, Russian news agencies reported, citing the foreign ministry.
The German government reacted to the news by urging Moscow to extend the deal saying the “conflict should not be carried out on the backs of the poorest on this planet” who rely on Ukrainian grain supplies.
Despite the Kremlin’s statements, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared optimistic about the prospects of the grain deal being maintained.
“I think that despite today’s statement, my friend Putin wants to continue the agreement” that allows the export of Ukrainian grain to the Black Sea, which is due to expire at 2100 GMT.
But Putin has repeatedly threatened to pull out of the agreement, arguing that elements of the deal allowing the export of Russian food and fertilisers have not been honoured.
According to data from the JCC, China and Turkey are the main beneficiaries of the grain shipments, as well as developed economies.
The deal has helped the World Food Programme bring relief to countries facing critical food shortages such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Yemen.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has been working hard to get the deal renewed and supports removing hurdles to Russia exporting its fertilisers.
Ukraine was also pushing ahead with its counteroffensive, with Kyiv on Monday saying its forces had retaken several square kilometres of territory around the eastern city of Bakhmut, which Russian forces seized in May.
Bakhmut, once home to 70,000 people and known for its sparkling wine and salt mine, has been destroyed by the longest and bloodiest battle of the war.
In the Kupyansk area of Kharkiv region Russian forces had been “actively advancing since the end of last week,” Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Ganna Malyar said.
Kyiv last month began its highly anticipated fightback against entrenched Russian troops after stockpiling Western weapons and building up its offensive forces.
But it has acknowledged slow progress and called on the United States and other allies to provide more long-range weapons and artillery.
“People should understand what price we pay for (advancing),” a commander on the ground, “Bulat”, told AFP. “There are a lot of enemies. We need time to grind them down.”