At least 19 people have been killed and dozens wounded in missile strikes in Ukraine’s Odessa region following the withdrawal of Russian forces from the area and the US-led military alliance's threat of full-scale war against Moscow.
Hours after the NATO summit concluded on Thursday, Western news outlets reported missile strikes on an apartment building and recreation center in Snake Island, off the coast of the southern region of Odessa, a strategic flashpoint that is home to Ukraine's historic port city of the same name.
The nine-story apartment building in the city’s Bilgorod-Dnistrovsky district was partially destroyed.
Local officials blamed Russia, saying the missiles were fired by aircraft flying in from the Black Sea, but Russia denied striking the building.
The development came just after NATO leaders wrapped up a summit in Madrid, where US President Joe Biden declared yet another major shipment of weapons to Ukraine, worth $800 million.
"We are going to stick with Ukraine, and all of the alliances are going to stick with Ukraine, as long as it takes to make sure they are not defeated by Russia," Biden vowed.
Last week Biden administration officials vowed that the US and its European allies were preparing for a protracted war in Ukraine even at the risk of “global recession and mounting hunger”.
“Biden administration officials had discussed the possibility of a protracted conflict [in Ukraine] with global spillover effects even before February” when US intelligence had suggested Russia was preparing to invade the country, The Washington Post reported on June 18, citing a senior State Department official.
“Our guiding light is that the outcome of Russia being able to achieve its maximalist demands is really bad for the United States, really bad for our partners and allies, and really bad for the global community,” the State Department official noted, as quoted in the report.
The latest development came after Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov compared the growing diplomatic tensions with the West to the Cold War, saying "as far as an Iron Curtain is concerned, essentially it is already descending... The process has begun."
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed in his daily press briefing on Thursday that Russia’s decision to abandon Snake Island "changes the situation in the Black Sea considerably."
"It does not yet guarantee security. It does not yet guarantee that the enemy will not return,” he noted, adding that it limits the activities of "occupiers."
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also cited Snake Island as he warned the Kremlin that any eventual peace deal would be on Ukraine's terms.
"We've seen what Ukraine can do to drive the Russians back,” Johnson stressed. “We've seen what they did around Kyiv and Kharkiv, now on Snake Island."
The Russian defense ministry statement, however, described the withdrawal as "a gesture of goodwill" meant to demonstrate that Moscow will not interfere with UN efforts to organize protected grain exports from Ukraine.
But Ukrainian officials insist that the Russian pullback marks a victory for Kiev with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba saying in a Twitter post that they "always downplay their defeats this way."
Putin denies Moscow’s role in global food crisis
On Thursday, a ship carrying 7,000 tons of grain sailed from the Russian-controlled Ukrainian port of Berdyansk, according to the regional leader appointed by the Russian forces.
Evgeny Balitsky, the head of the pro-Moscow administration, said Russia's Black Sea ships "are ensuring the security" of the journey, adding that the port had been de-mined.
It came as Putin denied that Russia bears any responsibility for the looming global food crisis due to the conflict in Ukraine.
"We have not put any restrictions on the export of fertilizers, nor on the export of food products," Putin said, as he welcomed his Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo, whose country holds the G20 presidency, at the Kremlin
Moscow does "not hinder the export of Ukrainian wheat," Putin stated, adding that Russia is "in constant contact" with the UN agency in charge of the issue.
Putin instead blamed US-led Western sanctions imposed on Russia, insisting that by targeting the owners of fertilizer companies, the bans have "created conditions that made it much more difficult" to deliver certain products internationally.
Indonesian President delivers Zelensky’s message to Putin
Widodo, who visited Moscow on Thursday after a trip to Kiev, said he had conveyed to Putin a message from Zelensky. Neither side has yet revealed the content of the message.
The Kremlin further announced this week that it had "responded positively" to the invitation to the G20 summit to be held in the Indonesian resort city of Bali in November, suggesting that Putin would attend in person.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, however, insisted after a G7 summit – in which Widodo was invited – that Indonesia had ruled out Putin's presence, a statement the Kremlin has rejected.
The terms of Russian participation will be determined after "an analysis of the situation," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared on Thursday.
Western countries, led by Washington, are reportedly exerting pressure on Indonesia to exclude Russia from the meeting, to which Ukraine has also been invited as a guest country.