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Russian drone strike on Ukrainian port of Reni ‘an indirect attack on Romania, Moldova’

A Russian Su-27 fighter jet dumps fuel on a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea. (DVIDS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

In the early hours of July 24, the Ukrainian port of Reni on the Danube River came under a massive Russian drone strike.

The attack lit up the sky in Romania, just 200 meters away on the other side of the river, one of Europe’s main waterways.

It was the closest the conflict in Ukraine has come to Romania since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of its neighbor on February 24, 2022.

The strike also came amid a nearly daily barrage by Russia’s military on Odesa and other Ukrainian food-export facilities over the past week after Russian President Vladimir Putin withdrew his country on July 17 from a UN-brokered sea corridor agreement that allowed for the safe shipment of Ukrainian grain. Kyiv has accused Moscow of targeting grain supplies and infrastructure vital to the deal.

In a worrying sign that Russia may be widening its attacks, analysts say the Kremlin is not only trying to elbow out Ukrainian grain exports from global markets but undermine support for Kyiv in the EU, especially among Central and Eastern European countries, by further disrupting those countries’ domestic agricultural markets.

Plus, the potential chaos at Romanian ports may not only impact Ukrainian grain exports, but complicate transport — in the opposite direction — of fuel and military aid — “everything that allows Ukraine to resist” Russia’s aggression, according to Cosmin Popa, a researcher at the Bucharest-based Nicolae Iorga Institute of the Romanian Academy.

Targeting the Danube will not only impact exports by barge, but could put added stress on rail and road transit routes through Romania and Moldova, Popa said in comments to RFE/RL’s Romanian Service. “Russia’s attacks are also indirect attacks on Ukraine’s neighboring countries. So, from this point of view, things will continue to get worse, in the absence of a clear and determined reaction from the West, which would show Putin that there are limits beyond which he cannot cross,” Popa said.

“[The Russians] are targeting with both direct and indirect goals…. They are aiming to disrupt the river and railway transport infrastructure in Romania, with the aim of congesting and creating havoc at Romanian ports at the mouth of the Danube,” Popa said.

Early indications appear to confirm that.

On July 25, ships were reportedly clogging the western edge of the Black Sea at the entrance to the Danube and outside Romania’s Black Sea port of Constanta amid what analysts say is uncertainty over whether to proceed along the potentially risky route.

Almost 30 ships dropped anchor near Ukraine’s crucial Izmayil port terminal on July 24, Reuters reported. Hours after the attack, a long line of trucks could be seen waiting outside the port at Reni, video posted to Twitter indicated.

Three grain warehouses were reported to have been destroyed in Reni in the July 24 attack involving about 15 drones that left seven port workers injured, although Ukrainian officials gave few details. Amid fears of disruption to grain exports and shipping, global wheat and corn futures rose sharply on July 24, Reuters reported.

Hours after the attack, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for Russia to return to the Black Sea grain deal, warning in Rome of a devastating impact on “vulnerable countries struggling to feed their people.”

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, one of several senior Romanian officials to condemn the attack, called it an “escalation” that posed “serious risks to the security in the Black Sea,” in a post on Twitter.

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, Kyiv has expanded grain exports overland via the EU to about 1 million tons a month, with large volumes being exported from Romanian ports and along the Danube.

Trains, trucks, and barges have been used to transport Ukrainian agricultural produce from small Danube ports such as Reni and Izmayil in southwest Ukraine to Romania.

Bordering Ukraine and also with Black Sea access, Romania — and specifically its port at Constanta — has also played an integral part in Ukrainian efforts to circumvent Russia’s naval blockade. Since the start of the war, Constanta has handled one third of Ukraine’s total grain exports of just under 49 million metric tons.

Romanian port operators shipped 8.6 million metric tons of Ukrainian grain in 2022 and 6.3 million metric tons in the first five months of 2023, the Constanta Port authority told Reuters. The port handled 12.2 million metric tons of grain overall in the first five months, a 21 percent jump on the previous year.

Other Implications?

The Russian attack on Reni may have other implications as well, noted Cristian Vlas, a Romanian-Moldovan analyst.

“Now, the risk is that Ukraine will have to rely even more on truck and rail exports, which is already a contentious issue in relation with Central and Eastern European countries, especially with Poland and Romania, EU states that can still be considered as Ukraine’s strongest allies in the EU,” Vlas told RFE/RL.

On May 2, the EU allowed five countries — Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia — to ban domestic sales of Ukrainian wheat, corn, rapeseed, and sunflower seeds, while allowing transit through them for export elsewhere, including to other EU countries.

The European Commission last year announced it was establishing what it coined “solidarity lanes” to ensure Ukraine can export grain, promising billions of euros in investment in infrastructure. On June 15, the European Commission extended that agreement until September 15, a looming date, according to Dionis Cenusa, an expert at the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Center.

“Russia is using disruptions to Black Sea grain shipments to complicate and spoil relations of at least five EU member states with Ukraine. These EU states, led by Poland, want to extend restrictions on certain categories of Ukrainian grain beyond September 15,” Cenusa told RFE/RL.

Beyond sowing chaos in the EU, Putin is trying to elbow out Ukraine and portray Russia as the globe’s potential food savior, said Cenusa.

And that message is one Putin is likely to emphasize when the Russian leader hosts dozens of African heads of state in St. Petersburg from July 26 to July 29 for the second annual Russia-Africa Summit.

“Putin has been outspoken about Russia’s capacity to replace Ukraine’s grain exports, both to satisfy Western markets and to offer humanitarian assistance to Africa,” said Cenusa.

Putin has repeatedly said that Russia would offer free grain to low-income African countries now that the grain deal has been terminated. “I want to give assurances that our country is capable of replacing Ukrainian grain both on a commercial and free-of-charge basis,” Putin said in a statement on July 24, asserting that Russia shipped almost 10 million tons of grain to Africa in the first half of this year.

“It is obvious that Russia is using the new dynamics of the war against Ukraine to gain advantages in the global south, which is suffering from drought and rising food prices,” said Cenusa. “Russia is slowly replacing energy with grain as a tool of global influence.”