Ukraine live briefing: Russia strikes Odessa amid Black Sea tensions; U.S. warns of plans to attack civilian shipping

Ukraine live briefing: Russia strikes Odessa amid Black Sea tensions; U.S. warns of plans to attack civilian shipping

Ukrainian servicemen prepare Thursday to fire a self-propelled howitzer 2C22 Bohdana toward Russian positions on the front line. (Reuters)

Russian forces held a live firing exercise in the Black Sea on Friday and struck granaries in Ukraine’s port region of Odessa, ramping up tensions days after Moscow pulled out of a U.N.-backed grain export deal.

The Kremlin’s withdrawal has suspended the flow of shipments via Black Sea routes from Ukraine, a major grain exporter, and raised fears for global food supplies. Russian missiles have pounded Ukrainian port cities this week, as Moscow and Kyiv issue warnings to ships venturing in the Black Sea.

The U.N. Security Council is meeting Friday to discuss the humanitarian impact of Russia’s pullout from the grain deal, reached last year to alleviate a food security crisis in developing countries.

At the meeting, the United States warned that Russia could be planning to attack Black Sea shipping routes. “The United States has information that the Russian military may expand its targeting of Ukrainian grain facilities to include attacks against civilian shipping,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “Our information also indicates that Russia laid additional sea mines in the approaches to Ukrainian ports. We believe this is a coordinated effort to justify any attacks against civilian ships in the Black Sea and lay blame on Ukraine for these attacks.”

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

Russia struck an agricultural facility in Odessa in the fourth day of pounding the port region, the Odessa governor said. The attack injured two employees and destroyed tons of peas and barley, Oleh Kiper added. The wave of attacks also comes after Moscow promised to retaliate for Kyiv’s strike on the Crimean Bridge earlier this week.

Putin is set to meet with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on July 23, while he is on a working visit to Russia, the Kremlin’s press service said Friday. Putin and Lukashenko “will continue to discuss relevant aspects of continued development of Russian-Belarusian relations of allied strategic partnership, as well as integration interaction within the Union State.”

The CIA director suggested Putin could still seek revenge on Wagner Group chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin over his short-lived mutiny. William J. Burns also commented on Russian Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who had good relations with the Wagner boss and whose whereabouts sparked rumors last month. “I don’t think he enjoys a lot of freedom right now,” Burns told NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly at the Aspen Security Forum, stopping short of saying Surovikin was in custody. Prigozhin appears to have accepted exile in Belarus, brokered by Lukashenko.

Tensions around maritime activity are simmering and the price of wheat futures has risen, though it has not reached its May 2022 high. Russia has said it considers ships en route to Ukrainian Black Sea ports to be involved in the conflict as of Thursday, and Ukraine responded it would treat vessels headed toward Russian ports the same.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Kyiv’s use of cluster munitions weapons was “actually having an impact on Russia’s defensive formations” and Ukrainian forces were using them “effectively,” though the decision to send the widely banned munitions has met criticism from human rights groups. He made the comments after The Washington Post reported that Ukraine began using the U.S.-provided munitions in a bid to push through Russian lines in the southeast.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for limits on funding cultural activities during the war in his nightly address. The cultural minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, announced his resignation, citing a “misunderstanding about the importance of culture during war” with the president. “Museums, cultural centers, symbols, TV series — all of this is important,” Zelensky said, “but now there are other priorities.”

What are cluster munitions, which Biden has sent to Ukraine?

A Russian naval ship fired cruise missiles at a target vessel and destroyed it as part of a Black Sea drill, the Defense Ministry said Friday. Russian warships and planes also practiced sealing off areas temporarily closed to shipments and seizing ships, it said.

Poland plans to move military formations from the west to the east of the country, citing the presence of the Wagner group in neighboring Belarus, according to Polish national news agency PAP. “Training or joint exercises between the Belarusian army and the Wagner group is undoubtedly a provocation,” it quoted the secretary of Poland’s security committee as saying.

Russia’s deputy defense minister held talks with his Iranian counterpart on military cooperation and exchanged “views on regional security and the international situation,” the Russian Defense Ministry said Friday.

Ukraine begins firing U.S.-provided cluster munitions at Russian forces: Ukrainian officials have said these munitions would make up for their disadvantage on the battlefield, although the cluster bombs are outlawed in more than 120 countries because of the threat to civilians, John Hudson and Isabelle Khurshudyan report.

Cluster munitions explode in the air over a target, dispersing smaller bomblets across a wide area. The submunitions can fail to explode on impact, potentially killing or injuring people long after a conflict ends.

The United States’ decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine is controversial because unexploded bomblets leave citizens at risk even decades later. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post, Photo: Júlia Ledur, Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

Most of Washington’s NATO allies are signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans their use and production, but the United States, Russia and Ukraine never signed it.

Putin has recently threatened to retaliate against Ukraine’s use of cluster munitions with its own supply “if they are used against us,” although the United Nations said last year that Russia had already used them in Ukraine at least 24 times in the first month of the war.

Shane Harris, Matt Viser, Robyn Dixon and Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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