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Ukraine steps up efforts to break Russia’s Black Sea blockade

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Two commercial ships have docked at a Ukrainian port as Kyiv steps up efforts to unilaterally break Russia’s blockade of it’s Black Sea coast.

The two incoming vessels docked at Chornomorsk hours before Russia launched its latest barrage of overnight missile and drone strikes across Ukraine. Agriculture infrastructure in the southern Odesa region was again targeted.

Russia also reported overnight Ukrainian drone strikes on Crimea, Moscow and other regions on Sunday.

“The first civilian ships used the temporary corridor in the direction of Ukrainian ports . . . to load almost 20,000 tonnes of wheat for African and Asian countries,” said Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister.

The Palau-flagged bulk carriers, called Resilient Africa and Aroyat, are the first to reach Ukrainian ports since Russia in July withdrew from a UN-brokered agreement that had permitted the export of more than 33mn tonnes of grain from Ukraine.

Kyiv this summer announced a corridor hugging the Black Sea coast of its southern neighbours and Nato members Romania and Bulgaria for ships that have been stranded in Ukraine’s ports after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Three vessels carrying food and two loaded with metallurgical products have left Ukrainian ports since Kyiv’s military opened the corridor, as Russia continues to resist international pressure to rejoin the grain export agreement.

Ukraine currently exports most of its grain by truck and rail through land routes into EU countries, but these routes involve added costs, damaging Kyiv’s competitiveness. It also continues to ship grain from ports on the Danube river that have faced regular missile attacks by Russian forces.

Ukraine, armed with Nato-grade air defence systems and longer-range missiles provided by its western allies, has increasingly targeted Russia’s Black Sea fleet based in Crimea, the peninsula which it illegally annexed in 2014. Last week it destroyed a Russian navy vessel and damaged a submarine docked for repairs at Sevastopol, the peninsula’s biggest port.

Neutralising Russia’s use of the peninsula as a military staging area is seen by officials in Kyiv as key to breaking the Black Sea blockade and supporting a military counteroffensive. Russia still occupies about 18 per cent of Ukrainian territory in its southern and eastern regions.

Though ships using Ukraine’s Black Sea ports face considerable risks, Kyiv claims it can protect the shipping corridor by damaging Russia’s ability to police the north-western corner of the Black Sea.

Russia’s strikes on Sunday damaged land and grain storage facilities in Berezivka, 90km north of the provincial capital Odesa, said Oleg Kiper, the region’s governor.

The strikes also hit the north-eastern city of Kharkiv and targets in the Dnipropetrovsk region.

Mykola Oleschuk, commander of Ukraine’s air force, posted a video on Telegram showing a Ukrainian air defence system early on Sunday intercepting an incoming missile near Odesa, with the explosion resembling a firework show.

“Our favourite city can sleep peacefully!” he wrote.

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