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UKRAINE UPDATE: 26 MARCH 2024

Russian missiles pummel Odesa and Kharkiv; EU grain debate ‘political’ – Kyiv agriculture minister

Russian missiles pummel Odesa and Kharkiv; EU grain debate ‘political’ – Kyiv agriculture minister
People mourn in front of the Russian National Library in St Petersburg on 25 March 2024 in memory of the victims of the terror attack in Moscow. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Anatoly Maltsev)

Russian forces targeted Ukraine’s south with ballistic missiles just hours after striking the country’s capital, while almost half a million households remained without electricity in Odesa and Kharkiv.

A push by several European Union member states to limit the import of grain from Ukraine was politically motivated and not an economic problem for those governments, the country’s agriculture minister said.

Russian authorities showed footage of four men charged in court with carrying out the deadly Moscow concert hall attack after interrogations that traced their origins to Tajikistan.

Russia hits Odesa as Ukraine grapples with massive power outages

Russian forces targeted Ukraine’s south with ballistic missiles just hours after striking the country’s capital, while almost half a million households remained without electricity in Odesa and Kharkiv.

Four people were injured in Odesa after two missiles hit a recreational zone in the port city on the Black Sea, ruining two buildings, the city council said on Telegram.  

The attacks happened as more than 300,000 households in the city were without power following previous attacks, regional governor Oleh Kiper said on Telegram. Nearly 200,000 households in the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, near the Russian border, also had no access to electricity, regional governor Oleh Synehubov said on Telegram.

Earlier on Monday, Vladimir Putin’s forces attacked Kyiv with two ballistic missiles. Even as the country’s air force reported them as downed, the falling debris injured 10 people and destroyed a sports hall in the central part of the city, according to Kyiv’s military administration.

Ballistic strikes on Monday followed a series of barrages last week during which Russia hit Ukraine with more than 150 missiles. The massive attack on Friday was the largest strike against the country’s energy grid since the war started more than two years ago. It disrupted power supplies to Kharkiv and damaged a key hydroelectric power plant on the Dnipro River. 

Ukraine sees EU grain debate as more about politics than trade

A push by several European Union member states to limit the import of grain from Ukraine was politically motivated and not an economic problem for those governments, the country’s agriculture minister said.

Mykola Solskyi was set to address EU agriculture ministers meeting in Brussels on Tuesday as the bloc remained stymied over an extension of preferential trade measures for the war-torn nation. Several member states have said the most recent proposal doesn’t do enough to address the disruptive flow of Ukrainian grain, a charge that Solskyi disputed. 

“In my opinion, as of today, this is not a trade issue,” he said in an interview in Brussels on Monday. “It is first of all political, to meet the demands of farmers in the EU. If we take the numbers and look at the situation objectively then I think 80% of questions that are being discussed will be lifted.”

Solskyi planned to meet France’s agriculture minister and will then go to Poland, where he will also address farmers, who have been most vocal in protests urging their government to also halt the transit of Ukrainian grain. 

Read more: Europe’s support for Ukrainian wheat gets farmers even angrier

Farmers, who have been staging demonstrations across Europe in recent weeks over Ukraine’s imports and the EU’s regulatory burden, were planning another protest in Brussels on Tuesday outside the agriculture ministers’ meeting.

The EU is still wrestling with how to continue supporting trade with Ukraine without hurting its own farmers. On the table is a one-year extension of the so-called autonomous trade measures that give Kyiv almost unfettered access to the EU market. The clock is ticking for a deal, with the current trade breaks set to expire on 5 June.

Under the most recent plan, which has yet to be approved by EU member states, tariffs would be restored if there’s a surge in imports of products including corn, poultry, sugar and eggs above the average trade volumes of the past two years. The proposed safeguards, however, don’t include grain, a step demanded by Poland and France.

The EU imported more than 17 times the amount of soft wheat from Ukraine in the 2022-2023 season compared with the previous year, before the war, according to French agency Intercereales.  

Meanwhile, Russia’s agriculture regulator has proposed cutting the export quota of a top grain trader, in an escalating spat that risks disrupting shipments from the world’s largest wheat exporter. 

The watchdog proposed redistributing previously approved grain export quotas, including for top exporter TD Rif, according to a statement on Monday. It cited “systematic inconsistencies” in grain safety and quality as a reason for the move.

The company says it has faced mounting pressure from authorities, with owner Petr Khodykin stating in a local media report last week that blocked shipments were leading to “huge losses.” Khodykin said that the firm was being pushed to sell its assets for a “negligible price”.

The dispute was the latest sign of how the Kremlin is moving to take stronger control of exports since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Major Western traders exited Russia’s grain export market last year after local officials and influential industry voices called for their role to be limited. Moscow has also been trying to implement an unofficial minimum price for its grain.  

Moscow attack suspects paraded in court as two plead guilty

Russian authorities showed footage of four men charged in court with carrying out the deadly Moscow concert hall attack after interrogations that traced their origins to Tajikistan.

Two of the men pleaded guilty to involvement in the worst atrocity in the capital in more than two decades, the Moscow courts service said on its Telegram channel. All four are detained until 22 May. It gave no information on pleas by the other two.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the assault by gunmen at a rock concert at Crocus City Hall that killed at least 137 people on Friday. Putin pointed the finger at Ukraine on Saturday without offering evidence, an allegation the government in Kyiv has flatly rejected. 

Read more: What is Isis-K, the group blamed for Russia attack? QuickTake

The scale of the tragedy has shocked Russians and shattered an illusion of stability in a city largely untouched by violence in recent years, including following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s reaction has stirred fears in Russia that he could even call another mass mobilisation to push forward with the war that is now in its third year.

US officials have said Islamic State bears sole responsibility for the attack, and that Washington earlier warned Moscow of the risk of an impending terrorist threat including against large public gatherings.

“The investigation continues. No solid theory has been announced just yet,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Monday after fielding questions from reporters about why Russian authorities did not mention Islamic State as possible perpetrators and whether Moscow deemed the US assessment as credible.

Even as Putin and other top officials tried to link the atrocity to Ukraine, much of the Russian media coverage on Monday was focused on Islamic State, suggesting the Kremlin narrative wasn’t fully taking hold. 

The four suspects were shown entering the court late on Sunday, their faces visibly swollen and bruised. One of the men was brought to the hearing in a wheelchair while another was heavily bandaged over one ear.

Video circulating on social media suggested that some of the men had been subjected to torture during interrogation by agents from the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB.

Broadcaster RBC said they were all from Tajikistan and the Interfax news service said they had been questioned in the Tajik language. There were no further details. Authorities had previously said a total of 11 people had been detained, including the four suspects.

The suspects were detained in Russia’s Bryansk region, which borders both Ukraine and Russian ally Belarus. The FSB said the men planned to cross into Ukraine where they “had contact”, Interfax had reported.

“Their only goal is to motivate more Russians to die in their senseless and criminal war against Ukraine,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a post on X, formerly Twitter. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has called the attack a false-flag operation by the Kremlin. 

Islamist groups have targeted Russia in the past, citing what they call anti-Muslim policies by the Kremlin. The seizure of a school in Beslan in the south of the country led to more than 330 fatalities, many of them children, in 2004. In 2010, twin suicide attacks in Moscow subway stations killed dozens, the last major atrocity in the capital before Friday. DM

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