While Russian Kalibr cruise missiles hit the port of Odessa, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was still being celebrated as a successful mediator in the Ukraine war. The next goal after Friday’s Istanbul Grain Agreement is a peace agreement between Moscow and Kyiv, the Turkish President confidently announced on Saturday during an appearance in the Turkish province. But now Istanbul’s grain deal could fail before the first ship has sailed.
Odessa is one of three Ukrainian ports from which, according to the Istanbul treaty, grain will soon be exported. According to Ukrainian sources, two Kalibr shells were intercepted over the city and two more hit the port. The attack resulted in injuries and property damage. The Ukrainian government said wheat was stored in the port of Odessa for export.
Nevertheless, according to Kyiv, it is working on the implementation of the Istanbul agreements. They provide security guarantees for freighters exporting Ukrainian grain, but no ceasefire. A command center in Istanbul with representatives from the UN, Turkey and the two warring parties is to coordinate the exports. The headquarters on the grounds of the Turkish Military Academy in Istanbul are managed by a Turkish admiral, the newspaper “Hürriyet” reported.
After the shelling of Odessa, however, it is uncertain whether the center can start its work. Erdogan’s government initially passed on a Russian denial to the world public: Russia had assured him that it had nothing to do with the shelling, Erdogan’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Saturday. Turkey continues to work on the fastest possible implementation of the grain agreement.
However, as a former chief of staff, Akar must have known that there was something wrong with the Russian account: Only the Russian armed forces have Kalibr cruise missiles. The Russian government confirmed the attack on Sunday.
“Military infrastructure in the port of Odessa” had been destroyed, the Moscow Foreign Ministry said. The Russian Defense Ministry said missiles fired from ships hit a Ukrainian warship and American arms shipments to Ukraine in port.
Moscow thereby exposed Akar and the rest of the Turkish government. Turkey stands as a mediator, either being fooled by Russia or denying Russian attacks. Ankara was apparently surprised by the Russian confirmation. Erdogan and Akar did not comment on this until Sunday afternoon.
Ukraine, the UN, the EU and Western countries condemned the Russian attack. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy spoke of “barbarism”. Moscow cannot be trusted, said the Ukrainian ambassador in Ankara, Vasil Bodnar. The contract with Russia is not worth its paper, Bodnar wrote on Twitter. On the other hand, Erdogan said on Saturday that Ukrainian grain exports would start within a few days.
The fate of the Istanbul Accord is uncertain after the Odessa attack. The Russian statements made it clear that the shelling was not an accident – observers estimate that further attacks are therefore possible.
Continued Russian attacks, which, like Saturday’s shelling, could be justified as destroying “military infrastructure”, would not contradict the letter of the Istanbul Treaty: the text only obliges Ukrainians and Russians not to attack ships or port facilities “participating in this initiative”. . At the moment, however, no ships are loaded for export in Ukrainian ports.
Serhat Güvenc, a Turkish security expert, believes that Russia could try to stop grain deliveries by shelling other Ukrainian ports. After the destruction of further port facilities, the Russian government could argue that Ukrainian grain exports have become “technically” impossible. Russian exports, which were secured in Istanbul with a separate agreement between Moscow and the UN, would not be affected.
Should Russia continue to attack the Ukrainian coast, Turkey would find itself in a difficult position as a mediator, Güvenc wrote in an article for the Turkish news platform Medyascope. Ankara would then have to try to put pressure on Russia to save the Istanbul Treaty from failing, but would have little chance of doing so. Aaron Stein from the US think tank FPRI also pointed this out on Twitter: “Neither Turkey nor the UN can provide security guarantees for Ukraine.”