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NATO allies and Ukraine on July 26 condemned Russia’s decision to withdraw from the Black Sea grain deal and what they said were Russia’s deliberate attempts to stop Ukraine’s agricultural exports.

In a statement issued after a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council in Brussels, NATO said the allies also condemned Russia’s recent missile attacks on Odesa, Mykolayiv, and other port cities, including Moscow’s “cynical” drone attack on the Ukrainian grain-storage facility in the Danube port city of Reni, which is very close to the border with NATO-member Romania.

“Russia continues to show utter disrespect for international law and for the people worldwide who depend on Ukrainian grain,” NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoana said in the statement. “We stand in solidarity with our Black Sea Allies, we will continue to protect one another, and we will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

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In addition, NATO allies said they would step up surveillance in the Black Sea region, including with maritime patrol aircraft and drones.

The British Defense Ministry said earlier that Russia may be preparing a blockade of Ukraine in the Black Sea.

“Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has altered its posture since Russia pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, in preparedness to enforce a blockade on Ukraine,” it said in its daily intelligence update.

“The modern corvette Sergei Kotov has deployed to the southern Black Sea, patrolling the shipping lane between the Bosphorus and Odesa. There is a realistic possibility that it will form part of a task group to intercept commercial vessels Russia believes are heading to Ukraine,” it said.

The NATO-Ukraine Council serves as a platform for exchanges during crisis situations and aims to foster closer cooperation until Ukraine can fulfil conditions for NATO membership.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy requested the meeting in response to Russia’s decision last week to suspend its participation in the agreement on the safe export of Ukrainian grain through Black Sea ports.

The deal expired on July 17 after Russia quit in a move the United Nations said would “strike a blow to people in need everywhere.”

Moscow said its reason for quitting the deal was that its demands to improve the exports of its grain and fertilizer were not met.

Russia also said that ships travelling to Ukraine’s Black Sea ports would be seen as possibly carrying military cargoes.

The NATO statement said the allies noted that the warning “has created new risks for miscalculation and escalation, as well as serious impediments to freedom of navigation.”

Zelenskiy welcomed the council’s “сlear and unequivocal condemnation” of Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal.

“Established only two weeks ago in Vilnius, the Council has already proved to be an effective mechanism for crisis consultations,” Zelenskiy said on Twitter, referring to the NATO summit in Lithuania earlier this month.

Ukraine will “continue to fulfil its obligations in providing global food security…. We stay united with the Alliance as we are moving along the path towards our NATO membership,” Zelenskiy said.

Ukraine’s mission to NATO also issued a statement after the NATO-Ukraine Council meeting. It said the allies emphasized that Russia alone was responsible for the food-security crisis in the world, and the use of food as a weapon is unacceptable.

The NATO allies “also expressed their readiness, both individually and within the alliance, to contribute to the establishment of alternative ways of ensuring the export of Ukrainian grain, in particular, using the possibilities of railway transportation and the capacities of the ports of individual NATO member states.”

Zelenskiy spoke earlier with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak about how to ensure the flow of Ukrainian grain to international markets amid fresh air strikes by Russia on the port city of Odesa and the capital, Kyiv.

“First and foremost, we talked about protecting our southern regions, in particular Odesa, the normal life of people and the work of our ports,” he said in the video. “Rishi and I discussed possible steps and the possible number of air-defense batteries. The United Kingdom can become the leader whose assistance with air defense systems will guarantee real security.”

Sunak said he made it clear during the call with Zelenskiy that any efforts by Russia to prevent grain from leaving Ukraine would be “completely unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, Russia said on July 26 it will not speak at a UN Security Council meeting on the grain deal, citing Britian’s decision to block Moscow-aligned Orthodox Bishop Gedeon (aka Yuriy Kharon) from testifying at a different Security Council meeting on Kyiv’s efforts to get rid of pro-Moscow Orthodox clerics.

In 2019, Kyiv stripped Gedeon of Ukrainian citizenship and deported him to Moscow.

Russia fired a barrage of missiles at Ukraine as the council met. Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said that Russian missiles in the Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Dnipropetrovsk regions were shot down late on July 26.

An air-raid alert was announced for the entire country around 6 p.m. Kyiv time after the air force reported the launch of cruise missiles from 12 Russian bombers in the Caspian Sea region. Ihnat said Russian troops fired missiles, probably Kinzhal (Dagger) hypersonic missiles, as well as ballistic missiles.

“Regarding the work of air defense, both antiaircraft units and fighters worked,” Ihnat said on Ukrainian television, adding that there was information on the downing of cruise missiles in the Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk regions.

The Ukrainian Air Force said it had intercepted and destroyed 36 cruise missiles fired by Russia during the wave of attacks. It said Ukrainian forces intercepted three Kalibr missiles in the afternoon, and 33 X-101 and X-555 missiles in the early evening.

Another Russian strike in the evening targeted the Khmelnytskiy region in western Ukraine. Information about that strike by MiG-31s that launched four hypersonic Kinzhal missiles was being “clarified,” it said.

In the Dnipropetrovsk region, the governor said on Telegram that the debris of a downed Russian missile caused a fire that was brought under control without causing any casualties.

On the battlefield, Ukrainian defenders over the past 24 hours fought off numerous Russian attacks in Kharkiv while continuing their incremental push in the southern region of Zaporizhzhya, the General Staff of the Ukrainian military said in its daily report on July 26.

“In the Kupyansk direction [of the Kharkiv region], our soldiers are firmly holding the defense,” the military said. “At the same time, Ukrainian forces continue to conduct an offensive operation in the Melitopol and Berdyansk directions [in Zaporizhzhya],” it said, adding that in total, Ukrainian forces fought 26 close combat battles in the past day.

Russian forces shelled and launched air strikes on more than 30 settlements in Zaporizhzhya and the Kherson region in the south, the military said.

Meanwhile, Pavlo Kyrykenko, the governor of the Donetsk region, said a 12-year-old girl died after being wounded in a Russian attack on a river bank in Kostyantynivka, raising the number of those killed to three.

Another child, a 10-year-old boy, was among those killed in the Russian attack on July 24 that Kyrylenko said used cluster munitions. Several other children who were on the river bank were wounded.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

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