Institute for the Study of War: Russia declares civilian ships en route to Ukraine may be ‘legitimate military targets’

Institute for the Study of War

Russian forces launched a third night of missile and drone strikes against port and grain infrastructure in southern Ukraine on July 20 following Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative on July 17. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched seven Onyx cruise missiles, four Kh-22 anti-ship missiles, three Kalibr sea-based cruise missiles, five Iskander ballistic missiles, and 19 Iranian-made Shahed drones. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian air defenses destroyed 18 targets, including two Kalibrs, three Iskanders, and 13 Shaheds. Spokesperson of the Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Captain First Rank Nataliya Humenyuk stated that Russian forces targeted port infrastructure in Mykolaiv and Odesa oblasts and noted that the strikes mainly affected warehouses and logistics facilities. Humenyuk noted that Russian “blackmail and sabotage” of Ukrainian ports started shortly after Russian began its rhetoric about its conditions for the expansion of the grain deal. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces struck Ukrainian manufacturing and storage facilities in Odesa City and Chornomorske in Odesa Oblast, and fuel infrastructure facilities and ammo depots in Mykolaiv City. Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces destroyed the Odesa Seaport Administration building in the center of Odesa City and noted that residential buildings were damaged by the blast wave. Ukrainian sources reported that Russian missile strikes also damaged a Chinese consulate building in Odesa City.

Ukrainian military officials outlined the challenge of defending against Onyx missiles and Russia’s shortage of Kh-22 missiles. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated that Onyx missiles fly at a speed of more than 3,000 kilometers per hour at a high altitude and then quickly change altitude to 10–15 meters above the surface when striking a target, making it difficult to detect and destroy. Ihnat noted on July 19 that Russian forces are using Onyx cruise missiles that are designed to destroy targets located directly on the coastline along the sea. Ihnat also stated on July 20 that Russia does not have the same ability to manufacture Kh-22 missiles that it does to produce other types of high-precision long-range missiles. Ihnat noted that Russia had approximately 250 Kh-22 missiles at the beginning of the war in February of 2022 and has already used approximately 150 missiles against Ukraine.

The Russian military announced that it may consider civilian ships in the Black Sea en route to Ukrainian ports legitimate military targets. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated on July 19 that as of midnight Moscow time on July 20 Russian forces will consider all ships en route to Ukrainian ports as potential carriers of military cargo and will consider the flag countries of such vessels as “involved in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of the Kyiv regime.” The Russian MoD declared a number of sea areas in the northern and southern parts of the Black Sea “temporarily dangerous for navigation” and claimed that it issued relevant warnings to sailors in the Black Sea about the withdrawal of safety guarantees. The Russian MoD specified that these naval measures are connected to the termination of the Black Sea Grain Initiative and the curtailment of the maritime humanitarian corridor in the Black Sea. The announcement prompted the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MoD) to announce on July 20 that as of midnight Kyiv time Ukrainian forces may treat all ships in the Black Sea heading to ports in Russia and occupied Ukrainian territories as military cargo vessels. The Ukrainian MoD similarly stated that Ukrainian officials released relevant navigation information to seafarers. US National Security Council Spokesperson Adam Hodge stated on July 20 that US intelligence indicates that Russian forces have laid additional sea mines in the approaches to Ukrainian ports. Hodge added that the White House believes that Russia is engaging in a coordinated effort to justify possible attacks against civilian ships in the Black Sea and blame Ukrainian forces for the attacks.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces launched a third night of missile and drone strikes against port and grain infrastructure in southern Ukraine on July 20 following Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative on July 17.
  • The Russian military announced that it may consider civilian ships in the Black Sea en route to Ukrainian ports legitimate military targets.
  • The Russian military’s intensifying strikes against Ukrainian port and grain infrastructure and threats of maritime escalation are likely a part of a Kremlin effort to leverage Russia’s exit from the Black Sea Grain Initiative and exact extensive concessions from the West.
  • The Kremlin likely views the Black Sea Grain Initiative as one of its few remaining avenues of leverage against the West and has withdrawn from the deal to secure these concessions.
  • Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front and reportedly advanced on July 20.
  • The United States and European Union (EU) reiterated their long-term security commitments to Ukraine via security assistance packages and proposals on July 19 and 20.
  • Wagner Group personnel are training Belarusian special forces on modern tactics at the Brest Training Ground in Brest, Belarus.
  • The Wagner Group may open another base in Belarus in Gomel Oblast near Belarus’ international border with Ukraine.
  • The Wagner Group reportedly suffered an 80 percent casualty rate and a 28 percent killed-in-action rate in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks on the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka–Donetsk City line and advanced on the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line as of July 20.
  • Ukrainian forces continued limited offensive operations east of Kupyansk, near Kreminna, near Bakhmut, and along the Avdiivka–Donetsk City line and made gains near Bakhmut on July 20.
  • Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations near Vuhledar, on the administrative border between western Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts, and south of Orikhiv and made limited territorial gains in western Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhia oblasts and western Zaporizhia Oblast on July 20.
  • Russian forces continued to unsuccessfully counterattack Ukrainian positions on the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast administrative border on July 20.
  • The Russian State Duma approved amendments increasing penalties for draft dodging and for officials and legal entities that fail to assist Russian force generation efforts on July 20.
  • Russian authorities continue persecution of non-Russian Orthodox churches in occupied Ukraine.
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