Russia on Thursday stepped up its aerial assaults on Ukrainian ports critical to the world’s food supply, as the White House warned that the Kremlin has mined sea routes and might be setting the stage for attacks on commercial transport ships.
Moscow has already put shipping companies on notice that they now cross the Russian blockade in the Black Sea at their own peril, and could be treated as military targets. The warning came days after Russia pulled out of a multinational deal that had allowed desperately needed Ukrainian grain to make it to the world market.
In a further sign of rising tensions, Ukraine on Thursday issued its own warning: Ships heading to Russian ports or to ports in occupied Ukraine, the Ministry of Defense said, will now be considered to be carrying “military cargo, with all the corresponding risks.”
In Washington, a White House official accused Moscow at a news conference of engaging in a false-flag operation to implicate Ukraine if Russia attacked a ship. The waters where Russia is said to have placed the mines are in an area already mined by Ukraine to deter an amphibious assault.
The White House official, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, pointed to Russia’s release a day earlier of a video showing what it claimed to be the detection and detonation of a Ukrainian sea mine.
“We believe that this is rather a coordinated effort to justify any attacks against civilian ships in the Black Sea, and then blame them on Ukraine,” Mr. Kirby said.
Despite Moscow’s own warnings to shipping outfits, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, on Thursday denied that it had any intention of attacking civilian ships, according to state media.
The Ukrainian ports were not the only place where Russia and its allies were flexing their muscles.
A week and a half after Sweden secured an agreement to join NATO, whose expansion has angered the Kremlin, Belarus, a close Russian ally, said on Thursday that mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner group were training troops on the border with Poland, a member of the Western military alliance.
And President Vladimir V. Putin traveled to the Russian city of Murmansk — which Russian news media pointedly noted is near the border of NATO’s newest member, Finland.
The grain agreement, reached last summer, was perhaps the only bright spot in a bleak year and a half of conflict, easing the threat of famine in countries dependent on Ukrainian exports. With the deal’s apparent demise, wheat prices have soared, jumping 12 percent since Monday.
However fierce the posturing from both sides, analysts said that widespread hostilities in the Black Sea appeared unlikely.
“The primary goal for the Russians is to undercut the Ukrainian economy, and if they could do that without firing a shot, they would be delighted,” said Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow for sea power at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defense and security research group.
The basic calculation for Russia, he said, has not changed: to damage Ukraine’s economy and free itself from Western sanctions without widening a war in which it is already stumbling.
“You can say that it’s a show of weakness in the broader strategic sense of the term, right?” Mr. Kaushal said. “The need to focus on things like eroding Ukraine’s economy reflects the fact that they can’t advance on the ground in the way that they thought that they would be able to at this time last year. ”
The Russian strategy is to use the threats against commercial shipping to drive up insurance premiums, hoping that the financial pain will cut off grain shipments and force the West to make concessions on some of the sanctions that are stifling Russian trade, analysts said.
Now, it’s a question of whether commercial vessels will risk transiting the Black Sea, what the insurance premiums might be and whether Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, will be able to find alternative routes out for the country’s grain.
Before the grain deal was struck, Ukraine increased exports by truck, train and river barge. Now, with the grain again blocked at the ports, it will still most likely be able to export most of its wheat, corn, barley and sunflower seeds via alternative routes, Rabobank, a Dutch bank, on Thursday. But the cost of transport will become more expensive, and rail infrastructure will be at a higher risk of Russian attacks, experts said.
Since pulling out of the grain agreement on Monday, Russia has launched a series of attacks on the Ukrainian port cities of Odesa and Mykolaiv, with some appearing to target grain export infrastructure, Ukrainian officials say.
In Chornomorsk, just south of Odesa, 60,000 tons of grain waiting to be loaded onto ships was destroyed, according to Ukraine’s agricultural minister. That is enough to feed more than 270,000 people for a year, according to the World Food Program.
Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s top diplomat, said Russia had not only withdrawn from the grain agreement, “but they are burning the grain,” too.
“What we already know is that this is going to create a big, a huge food crisis in the world,” he told reporters before an E.U. meeting in Brussels.
On Thursday, both ports were hit again.
At least 19 people, including one child, were injured in Mykolaiv, a short distance up an estuary off the Black Sea, after an explosion sparked a fire at a residential building, according to Vitaly Kim, the head of the regional military administration.
Nearby, Odesa, already reeling from two nights of some of the biggest assaults on the city since the beginning of the war, was targeted anew, resulting in a large fire in the city center, according to the regional military administrator. At least one person was found dead under the rubble of a destroyed building, Oleh Kiper, the regional governor of Odesa, said in a post on the Telegram messaging app.
The U.S. warning about Russian actions in the Black Sea were somewhat reminiscent of those the White House made in the months leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, when officials repeatedly said there were signs of an impending attack in the hope of staving it off. They later took a similar approach when it appeared that China was considering providing Russia with weapons for the war.
On Thursday, speaking to reporters, Mr. Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, said, “We felt it was important to sound that warning and to make that clear what we’re seeing and what we believe Russia is really up to here.”
Reporting was contributed by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Victoria Kim, Ivan Nechepurenko and Jenny Gross.