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Russia attacks Danube port, escalating attacks on grain routes in Ukraine

    Russia first attacked a port on the Danube River in Ukraine on Monday, close to the Romanian border, Ukrainian and Romanian officials said. They destroyed a grain shed in an escalation of their efforts to cripple Kiev’s agriculture and risk a more direct confrontation with the United States and its European allies.

    The attack on the port of the city of Reni, across the river from Romania, a NATO member, targeted Kiev’s alternative export routes for grain to reach world markets, days after Russia terminated a deal that allowed Ukraine to ship its grain across the Black Sea. The attack comes the closest to Moscow to hit the military alliance’s territory since the all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine last year.

    The port strike came on Monday morning amid two drone strikes in central Moscow, which Russian officials blamed on Ukrainian forces. At least two non-residential buildings were hit at about 4 a.m. local time, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said on the Telegram messaging app. He added that there was no “serious damage or casualties”.

    Ukrainian and Romanian officials denounced the port strike, along with Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis condemn the attack on Ukrainian infrastructure close to his country’s borders. He said on Twitter that the “recent escalation poses serious risks to security in the Black Sea,” as well as Ukraine’s grain shipments and global food security.

    Romania’s defense ministry said it was maintaining a “heightened vigilance” attitude towards its allies along the alliance’s eastern flank. But the ministry added in a statement that “there are no potential direct military threats against our national territory or Romania’s territorial waters.”

    Almost every night since the Kremlin pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative last week, its forces have launched a barrage of attacks on the city of Odessa — which is about 130 miles from Reni — and its Black Sea port, destroying grain supplies and infrastructure. Those attacks, along with Moscow’s warning that it would view any ship approaching Ukraine’s Black Sea ports as potential military cargo traffic, made Ukraine’s alternative grain routes more important.

    Ukraine, a major producer of grain and other food crops, exports about two million tons of grain monthly through its Danube ports, according to Benoît Fayaud, the deputy director of Stratégie Grains, an agricultural economics research firm.

    The attack in Reni, about 70 miles from the coast, could deter commercial vessels from using the port in the short term and increase insurance costs, Mr Fayaud said.

    Global wheat prices rose about 5.5 percent in Monday morning trading.

    The attacks in Moscow and the Danube came amid a grueling war in which Ukraine has mounted a slow counter-offensive to take back territory seized by Russian forces. Kiev has rarely admitted to attacking Russian territory far from the frontline, but the Moscow drone strike was not the first since the start of the war.

    In May, eight drones targeted Moscow, the Russian capital, shattering windows in three residential buildings and injuring two residents, officials said. The strikes confronted Muscovites with the realities of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which President Vladimir V. Putin had tried to shield from their daily lives. That attack came after Russian forces launched another in a series of night attacks on Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

    After the drone hit Monday, videos verified by The New York Times showed damage in at least two locations near the Moskva River in southern Moscow. One building that was hit is located about a block away from Russia’s National Defense Management Center, an imposing structure used to conduct “centralized combat command of the Russian Armed Forces,” according to the ministry’s website.

    Smoke could be seen rising from the top floors of a high-rise building housing a French housing chain. Other images showed damage to several buildings along Komsomolsky Prospect – an avenue that runs through one of the most upscale parts of central Moscow and is close to the Ministry of Defense – including the building that houses the Military University and the Central Military Band, a performance group of the Russian Armed Forces.

    It was not possible to determine whether drones had caused the damage. But authorities blocked part of Komsomolsky Prospect after finding one of the drones there, state news media reported. Russian authorities said they destroyed two drones.

    Later on Monday, another drone crashed near a residential building in Moscow’s Pervomaiskoe district, but local news outlets said there were no immediate injuries.

    The attack on the Danube port took place over the course of four hours, Oleh Kiper, the head of the regional military administration in that part of Ukraine, wrote on Telegram. Ukraine’s air defense shot down three drones, he said, adding that seven people were injured, three by shrapnel. One had serious injuries.

    Mike Lee, director of Green Square Agro Consultancy, which specializes in the Black Sea and Eastern Europe, called the attack on Reni a “massive escalation” by Moscow in terms of the effect it could have on Ukraine’s ability to use alternative export routes.

    Russia last year fired on western Ukraine near its border with Poland, also a NATO member, but failed to hit Ukrainian facilities so close to territory covered by the military alliance’s commitment to jointly respond to an attack on a member state. NATO and Poland said what was detonated several miles outside the Ukrainian border in November was most likely the remnant of a Ukrainian surface-to-air missile, though US and NATO officials still hold Russia responsible as the aggressor.

    Russian war cheerleaders hailed the attacks on the port as another step toward destroying Ukraine’s economy and blocking what they described as Western arms supplies.

    They said Kiev had taken advantage of the port’s proximity to NATO territory — and the fact that ships can approach the port along the Danube without passing through Ukrainian waters in the Black Sea — as a way to continue exporting grain and other goods during the war.

    “It seems that they are blocking this way of circumventing the naval blockade of Kiev,” Russian talk show host Olga Skabeyeva told state television channel Rossiya. “And soon they will completely deny Ukraine access to the Black Sea.”

    A popular pro-war blog known as Rybar also claimed that the Reni Port was used to supply the Ukrainian army along with grain exports.

    On Monday, the FSB, the successor to Russia’s KGB, claimed it had evidence that Ukraine imported explosives across the Black Sea to one of its Danube ports in May. The claim could not be independently verified.

    The Danube river delta, a network of waterways that crosses the border region of Moldova, Romania and Ukraine, was rarely used to export Ukrainian grain before the invasion, but in the past year it has become indispensable.

    The grain deal brokered for the first time last year by the United Nations and Turkey covered three major Black Sea ports and enabled Ukraine to ship more than 30 million tons of grain. At the same time, smaller ports on the Danube that were not part of the deal could send shipments that made their way to the Black Sea and beyond to international destinations.

    Those routes — as well as overland trails — became vital after Russia ended the Black Sea deal, saying its demands had to be met. Moscow had complained bitterly that the deal was biased toward Kiev and that Western sanctions restricting the sale of its own agricultural products should be lifted, among other demands.

    The United Nations has said Russia’s efforts to halt Ukraine’s exports would exacerbate a hunger crisis facing some countries in Africa and the Middle East. Ukraine exports grain by road and rail to European Union countries, as well as through the Danube ports.

    Since the start of the war, Ukraine has sent more than 20 million tons of grain to foreign markets via Romania and millions more by train via Poland, an influx that has angered Eastern European farmers, who said it drove down local prices. Following protests in some EU countries, the bloc allowed Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia to ban domestic sales of Ukrainian wheat, corn, rapeseed and sunflower seeds, though it continued to allow the transit of those items for export elsewhere.

    The ban is expected to expire on September 15. Last week, ministers from those five countries called for an extension of the ban.

    On Monday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine pushed back on that idea, saying on Telegram that extending the ban would be “unacceptable in any form”.

    Yuri Shyvala, Anton Trojanovsky And Gabriela Sa Pessoa reporting contributed.