The fate of Ukraine’s second biggest power plant was hanging in the balance Wednesday after Russian-backed forces claimed to have captured it intact, but Kyiv did not confirm its seizure, saying only that fighting was underway nearby.
Seizing the Soviet-era coal-fired Vuhlehirsk power plant in Eastern Ukraine would be Moscow’s first strategic gain in more than three weeks in what it calls its “special operation” to demilitarize and “denazify” its neighbour.
Rising energy prices and a global wheat shortage that threatens millions in poorer countries are among the far-reaching effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russia reduced gas flows to Europe on Wednesday in an energy stand-off with the European Union. It has blocked grain exports from Ukraine since invading on Feb. 24, but on Friday agreed to allow deliveries through the Black Sea to Turkey’s Bosporus Strait and on to global markets.
Mines and dangers to seafarers
However, shipping companies are not rushing to export millions of tonnes of trapped grain out of Ukraine, despite the agreement to provide safe corridors through the Black Sea. Explosive mines are drifting in the waters and ship owners are assessing the risks. As well, many involved in the shipping of grain still have questions over how the deal will unfold.
The complexities of the agreement have set off a slow, cautious return to grain shipping, and the deal is only good for 120 days — the clock began ticking last week.
The goal over the next four months is to get some 18 million tonnes of grain out of three Ukrainian sea ports. This provides time for about four to five large bulk carriers per day to transport grain into the Black Sea and on to global markets.
The timing also provides ample time for things to go awry. Hours after the signing Friday, Russian missiles struck Ukraine’s port of Odesa — one of those included in the agreement.
Another key element of the deal offers assurances that shipping and insurers carrying Russian grain and fertilizer will not get caught in the wider net of Western sanctions. But the agreement brokered by Turkey and the UN is running up against the reality of how difficult and risky the pact will be to carry out.
“We have to work very hard to now understand the detail of how this is going to work practically,” said Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, which says it represents national ship owners’ associations, accounting for about 80 per cent of the world’s merchant fleet.
“Can we make sure and guarantee the safety of the crews? What’s going to happen with the mines and the minefields, as well? So lots of uncertainty and unknowns at the moment,” he said.
The deal stipulates that Russia and Ukraine will provide “maximum assurances” for ships that brave the journey through the Black Sea to the Ukrainian ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhny.
“The primary risk that’s faced is obviously going to be mines,” said Munro Anderson, head of intelligence and a founding partner at Dryad. The maritime security advisory company is working with insurers and brokers to assess the risks that ships could face along the route as sea mines laid by Ukraine to deter Russia are drifting.
Ship owners, charterers and insurance firms are seeking to understand how the deal will play out in real time.
“I think it’s going to come [down] to the position of the marine insurers that provide war risk and how much they are going to be adding in additional charges for vessels to go into that area,” said Michelle Wiese Bockmann, shipping and commodities analyst at Lloyd’s List, a global shipping news publication.
Bockmann said vessels carrying this kind of load typically have between 20 to 25 seafarers on board.
“You can’t risk those lives without something concrete and acceptable to the ship owners and to their charterers to move grain,” she said.
Halt to strategic gains
Russian and Russian-backed forces have been struggling to make meaningful progress on the ground since their capture in early July of the Eastern Ukrainian city of Lysychansk.
They have been repeatedly pushed back by fierce Ukrainian resistance to what Kyiv and the West regard as an imperialist Russian land grab in a pro-Western neighbour.
Unverified footage posted on social media appeared to show fighters from Russia and the Wagner private military company posing in front of the Vuhlehirsk power plant, which some Russian state media — citing Russian-backed officials — reported had been stormed.
Reuters could not immediately verify the video or if the plant had switched to Russian control.
The same unverified footage showed that working parts of the Soviet-era power plant, which is perched on the shore of a huge reservoir, appeared to be undamaged.
Ukraine did not confirm the power plant’s capture and only said that “hostilities” were underway in two nearby areas. It said on Monday that “enemy units” had made some gains around the plant.
Rockets hit strategic bridge in Kherson
Meanwhile, Russian forces suffered a setback in southern Ukraine’s Kherson region after Ukrainian forces struck an important bridge straddling the Dnipro river with what a Russian-appointed local administrator said were U.S.-supplied high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS).
The Antonivskyi Bridge is the city of Kherson’s sole span across the river and Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian-appointed city administration, told Russia’s RIA news agency it had been closed to traffic after the rocket strike.
He said Russia was ready to compensate for it being taken out of action with pontoon bridges and ferries.
Ukraine has spoken of launching a major counter-offensive in the south of the country to try to retake cities such as Kherson. Rendering the bridge unusable for Russian forces is seen by Western military analysts as something that would make it much harder for Moscow’s forces to operate smooth supply lines and defend land they have seized.
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