The Russian Foreign Ministry said separately that due to the attack it “would no longer guarantee the safety of civilian dry cargo vessels participating in the Black Sea Grain Initiative and would suspend its implementation from today for an indefinite period”.
Britain responded to the accusation of drone attacks by saying Russia was making “epic misrepresentations”. Ukraine has not officially claimed responsibility for the attacks.
A video broadcast on Ukrainian Telegram channels on Saturday showed a naval drone targeting what appeared to be the Russian frigate Admiral Makarov. The Makarov would have replaced the flagship of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, Moskva, which sank in April after Ukrainian forces hit it with Neptune anti-ship missiles. The Washington Post has been unable to independently verify the authenticity of this video.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the drone attacks were largely repelled and only one minesweeper suffered minor damage.
Moscow and Kyiv signed the grain deal in July, opening Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to exports, which had been halted after Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24.
Turkey played a key role in brokering the deal, as it has close ties with Russia and Ukraine and has sought to raise its diplomatic profile to mediate talks between the warring parties.
As part of the deal, Ukrainian pilots guided ships through the port, which Ukraine exploited earlier in the war to prevent Russia from capturing key ports like Odessa. The United States and Ukraine have also accused the Russian Navy of laying mines near the Ukrainian coast.
Then the ships were allowed to pass safely by the Russian military to sail to Turkey, which organized teams with experts from all parties involved to inspect the ships before they set off for their destinations. Ships entering Ukraine have also been inspected for weapons, a condition Moscow has set to ensure the grain corridor is not used to supply Ukraine with Western weapons.
More than 8 million tonnes of grain were exported from Ukraine under the deal which has lowered global food prices, according to the United Nations.
“It is vital that all parties refrain from any action that would jeopardize the Black Sea Grains Initiative, which is a critical humanitarian effort that is clearly having a positive impact on access to food for millions of people around the world,” Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said in a statement.
Negotiations over an extension to the deal were tense even before the ship attacks, as Moscow signaled it could pull out of the deal after repeated complaints about its implementation.
In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin floated the idea of limiting the deal, saying the goods were destined for the European Union rather than poor countries with severe food shortages.
Erdogan echoed Putin’s complaints, adding that he also wanted Russian grain to be exported.
“The fact that grain shipments are destined for countries that apply these sanctions [against Moscow] bothers Mr. Putin. We also want grain shipments to start from Russia,” Erdogan told a news conference. “The grain that comes under this grain deal unfortunately goes to rich countries, not poor countries.”
After the strategic bridge connecting Crimea with mainland Russia was blown up in early October, Putin speculated that the grain corridor could have been used by Ukrainian special services to attack the highly symbolic gate. If proven, he suggested, it would jeopardize the deal.
Later in October, Gennady Gatilov, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said Russian-flagged ships were not being accepted into European ports due to sanctions and lamented difficulties in obtaining insurance and a funding for Russian grain and fertilizer shipments.
Ukraine, in turn, accused Moscow of not fully implementing the deal. In one of his late-night speeches last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia was “deliberately delaying the passage of ships”, creating an artificial backlog of more than 150 ships.
Zelensky said the Ukrainian food export situation was becoming “increasingly tense” and that Moscow was “doing everything to slow down” the process.
“I believe that with these actions, Russia is deliberately inciting the food crisis so that it becomes as acute as it was in the first half of this year,” Zelensky said.
Last week, Ukraine also accused Russia of blocking full implementation of the deal, saying Ukrainian ports had recently been operating at 25-30% capacity.
“Russia is deliberately blocking the full realization of the Grain Initiative,” the country’s infrastructure ministry said at the time.
In a tweet on Saturday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Moscow was using a “false pretext” to prevent Ukraine from exporting its grain and other agricultural products.
“We warned against Russian plans to ruin the Black Sea Grain Initiative,” Kuleba wrote. He also called on the global community to “demand that Russia stop its Hunger Games and recommit to its obligations.”
The head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, Andriy Yermak, said Moscow was “blackmailing” using food, energy and nuclear materials, which he called “primitive”.
David Stern contributed to this report.