Ukraine Situation Report: Russia Strikes Port Just After Grain Export Deal Reached

One of the few diplomatic breakthroughs in the Russo-Ukrainian War could be in bits and pieces only hours after the parties agreed to its terms. 

On Friday, the warring countries announced a United Nations-backed agreement brokered through negotiations in Istanbul that guaranteed safe passage of Ukrainian grain from Odesa and two more ports on the Black Sea.

The agreement further protected vessels and facilities in the three Ukrainian ports, including Odesa, but it did not address the threat posed by extensive naval mining in the Black Sea. Ukrainian officials previously estimated it would take six months of minesweeping to clear the mines, and by this fall there could be 75 million tons of grain stuck in the country if it cannot be exported. We wrote about the mines’ impact on any potential grain agreement here

Regardless, the current deal would allow Russian, Ukrainian, and Turkish officials to inspect vessels to guard against weapons smuggling, and that Russia would not attack those ships as they sailed around the Black Sea. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu went as far as to say Russian forces would not “take advantage” of the safe harbor agreement. 

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres heralded the agreement as a “beacon of hope” amid escalating fears of widespread food shortages from the Black Sea blockade that could have major regional and global implications. 

But air raid sirens the following morning in Odesa turned that hope into more of the same frustration and exhaustion associated with the war’s prior diplomatic efforts. 

Russia launched 3M14 Kalibr land attack cruise missiles, the favored Russian precision standoff strike weapon, against the Black Sea port of Odesa early Saturday. Air defenses intercepted two of the missiles over the city, but one struck a dry dock area directly across from towering grain terminal silos. 

Russia has denied involvement in the attack despite being the only belligerent in this war using Kalibr missiles. While incredibly contemporaneous to the agreement, the strike fits a pattern of Russian behavior not unique to its war in Ukraine. While there is no definitive proof of this at this time, the missile could have been aimed at the silos themselves based on the footage available, but missed and hit the dock area just beyond the grain transfer complex.

U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Bridget Brink, called the strikes “outrageous” and said Russia must be held accountable for its ongoing weaponization of the global food supply through the war in Ukraine.

Despite the attack, the Ukrainian government will continue preparations for grain exports to resume. 

Whether Ukrainian grain actually makes it into the Black Sea and on to places that need it remains unclear. Just the threat of Russian attacks on shipping, or more acutely there being no clear way to deter or counter them in kind, could keep ship operators from sailing into or out of Ukrainian waters.

Before heading into the other latest news from the war in Ukraine, The War Zone readers can catch up on our previous rolling coverage here.

The Latest

Two Americans were among four foreign fighters killed in a battle along the Donbas frontline on July 18, according to a detailed account of the battle from Christopher Miller for Politico. Luke “Skywalker” Lucyszyn and Bryan Young reportedly died alongside Emile-Antoine Roy-Sirois of Canada and Edvard Selander Patrignani of Sweden, all volunteers fighting as part of a Ukrainian special operations force, when Russian tanks ambushed their position near the village of Hryhorivka.

The news on American casualties came as members of the House Armed Services Committee met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Saturday, led by Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA).

Here’s the latest intelligence report from the British Ministry of Defense, with specific mention of the Ukrainian offensive in Kherson Oblast and vulnerabilities to Russian supply lines reliant on precious few crossings over the country’s largest river. 

Russian forces west of the Dnipro River depend on several fixed chokepoints through which their supplies must travel, namely the Antonivsky Bridge just upstream of Kherson proper. There are reports that some Russian forces have been encircled further north of Nova Kakhovka near the town of Vysokopillya.

Ukrainian forces have targeted the crossing in recent days and even damaged the bridge in several places with American-supplied M142 HIMARS rockets.

It’s not clear whether Kyiv wants to bring the bridge down, or for that matter if it has that capability with long-range fires or air power. A total collapse into the Dnipro could hamper any future Ukrainian offensive southward into Crimea. A broken but repairable bridge would limit Russia’s ability to resupply its units in Kherson Oblast or to have those units escape back across the river. Russia would be forced to risk losing its forces in Kherson or dedicate valuable engineering resources to keeping the bridge open, all at a known, fixed location within HIMARS range.

The bridge, which saw heavy fighting during the initial drive north out of Crimea, was a day one objective for Russian forces.

Given Russia’s noted difficulty in bridging operations in this war, it’s unlikely Russian forces could successfully and continuously span a large, navigable waterway like the Dnipro near Kherson. This isn’t the much narrower Donets River in the east, where we have new footage of the devastation from fighting there. We wrote about Russian forces’ bad, terrible, no-good time fighting for a bridgehead on the Donets in May. Ukraine’s precision fire capability would make such an operation that much more dangerous.

Russian-occupied territory in southern Ukraine, or what it can hold in the face of Ukrainian counterattacks, could be on the fast track to annexation into Russia. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted as such in an interview Friday where he noted that Russia’s goals in Ukraine were “not just Donetsk and Luhansk,” referring to the two Russian-backed separatist states that have fought Ukrainian forces since 2014.

We also have new images of Ukraine using Polish-made Warmate loitering munitions against Russian forces in and around the Zaporizhia power plant, specifically BM-21 rocket launchers that had been firing at Ukrainian forces from the facility.

HIMARS rockets continue to make valuable Russian targets, namely ammunition dumps, disappear in big, loud explosions along and miles behind the frontlines, and four more launcher vehicles are on the way.

The Department of Defense announced Friday four HIMARS and additional ammunition were part of a new $270 million package to Ukraine that also includes command post vehicles, 36,000 rounds of 105mm ammunition, anti-armor weapons, spare parts, and up to 580 Phoenix Ghost drones.

There’s also a claimed strike targeting a meeting of Russian military leadership in occupied Lysychansk.

Despite Ukrainians making good use of the precision-guided rockets, the U.S. won’t transfer the longer-range MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) to Ukraine over concerns of escalation with Russia, per National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. ATACMS would give Ukraine an ability to strike even fortified targets nearly 200 miles away.

We wrote about the White House’s wariness to give Ukraine a long arm with which to strike deep into Russian territory back in May, and you can read more about that here

A significant explosion rained what appeared to be incendiary bomblets over the city of Donetsk late Saturday, with bright white pieces seen falling across several videos.

Russia has previously used the 9M22S 122mm Grad incendiary munition in Ukraine, particularly in the Donbas. Why Russia would use those rockets against a city it has held on its side of the trench lines long before full-scale fighting began in February isn’t clear.

More and more footage from the initial Russian air assault on Antonov airport in Hostomel is emerging. Russia’s failure to take the airfield and begin airlifting troops into Kyiv’s outskirts on the war’s first day likely played no small part in dooming the offensive on the capital, and now we have more ground-level footage of that pivotal fight. 

Lastly, the fellas at Saint Javelin gave the FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank guided missile, having achieved whatever lies beyond a cult-like following from its ability to decapitate Russian tanks, the Sir David Attenborough treatment. Not unlike the clip we wrote about in May likening Russian tanks to salmon swimming up river to die, “BBC Planet Ukraine: The Javelin” is everything you could want in a nature documentary about a missile with an incredible compilation of kill shots from Ukrainian anti-tank teams.

We will continue to update this story until we state otherwise. 

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