Russia has conducted a live fire "exercise" in the northwest Black Sea, just days after declaring that cargo ships en route to Ukrainian ports would be regarded as possibly carrying military equipment.

The latest development significantly raises tensions in the region in the wake of Moscow’s scrapping of the grain exports deal with Kyiv.

Tell me more about this live fire “exercise”

On Friday morning, Russia’s defense ministry said a missile boat from its Black Sea Fleet “carried out live firing of anti-ship cruise missiles at the target ship in the combat training range in the northwestern part of the Black Sea.

“The target ship was destroyed as a result of a missile strike,” it said.

“Also, during the joint exercise, the ships and fleet aviation worked out actions to isolate the area temporarily closed to navigation, and also carried out a set of measures to detain the offending ship.”


Why is Russia doing this now?

Earlier this week, Russia scuppered a deal that allowed Ukraine to export grain through the Black Sea, pushing up global prices and depriving 400 million people worldwide of badly needed grain.

Moscow’s full-scale invasion last year saw Ukraine’s Black Sea ports blocked by warships until the agreement – brokered by the UN and Turkey and signed in July 2022 – allowed for the passage of critical grain shipments from the Ukrainian port of Odesa.

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Russia then launched what is now four days of missile attacks on the Odesa region, destroying thousands of tons of food and critical port infrastructure.

In the latest attack overnight, 100 tons of peas and 20 tons of barley were destroyed when a grain terminal was struck.

Upping the ante significantly, on Wednesday Russia also announced it would consider ships travelling to Ukraine through the waterway potential military and banned traffic on the northwestern and southeastern parts of the sea.


It also said flag countries of vessels sailing to Ukraine will be considered as on Kyiv’s side.

That means that purely on the grounds of suspicion, Russia is willing to blow the commercial trawlers flagged by countries such as China, India, Turkey, Egypt, Panama, and Greece out of the water.

That sounds very provocative

It is, but the situation may even be more intense – senior US security official yesterday told AFP that Russia is considering attacking civilian ships on the Black Sea and putting the blame on Kyiv as part of “false flag” operations.

National Security Council spokesman Adam Hodge cited Russia’s release of a video showing its forces detecting and destroying an “alleged Ukrainian sea mine.”

“Our information indicates that Russia laid additional sea mines in the approaches to Ukrainian ports,” he said, adding the allegation was based on newly declassified intelligence.

“We believe that this is a coordinated effort to justify any attacks against civilian ships in the Black Sea and lay blame on Ukraine for these attacks,” Hodge said.

How has Ukraine responded?

On Thursday Ukraine announced its own move, declaring that ships sailing to Russian-controlled ports on the Black Sea would be treated as possibly carrying military cargo.


“Starting from 00:00 on July 21, 2023 (2100 GMT), all vessels in the Black Sea heading towards Russia's seaports and Ukrainian seaports located in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine may be considered by Ukraine as carrying military cargo, with all the associated risks,” the Defense Ministry said.

Ukraine also said it had prohibited navigation on “the northeastern part of the Black Sea and the Kerch Strait” near Crimea.

What happens next?

Ukraine has previously said it would be ready to continue with grain exports from its southern ports following Moscow's exit from the deal and has called on the UN and neighboring countries to secure safe passage for cargoes through joint patrols.

Whether or not this happens depends on Russia, but it’s latest live fire exercise move suggests it won’t be backing down anytime soon.

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