On July 22, Russia and Ukraine signed separate agreements with Turkey and the United Nations to reopen Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to allow the resumption of grain exports.
The agreements stipulate that the parties "will not undertake any attacks against merchant vessels … and port facilities engaged in this initiative."
On July 25, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that Russia had hit a military warehouse and a warship located in a military area of Odesa’s port.
“The targets that were hit with precision strikes were located in a separate, military part of the Odesa port. They were a combat boat of Ukraine’s naval forces and an ammunition depot, to which [U.S.-made] Harpoon anti-ship missiles were recently delivered to create threats to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Now these ‘Harpoons’ pose no threat to us,” Lavrov said.
Trouble is, Lavrov’s comments contradict news reports and previous Russian statements, not to mention what Ukraine officials on the ground reported.
The first statements about the missile attack were on July 23.
The Odesa Regional Military Administration (Ukraine) reported that Odesa’s commercial seaport had been targeted, with two missiles striking “infrastructure facilities” and two others shot down by Ukrainian air defenses.
Al Jazeera journalists gave a similar account, reporting they witnessed four incoming missiles, two of which were intercepted.
Air Defense Forces of Ukraine spokesman Yuriy Ignat said Russia’s missiles struck port infrastructure “exactly where” the grain awaiting export was stored.
Six hours after the strike, Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency, citing Turkey, reported that Russian officials denied involvement in the attack.
"In our contact with Russia, the Russians told us that they had absolutely nothing to do with this attack and that they were examining the issue very closely and in detail," TASS quoted Turkish Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar as saying.
Russia’s Defense Ministry publishes an official daily report on its military actions against Ukraine. These reports include information about every Russian missile strike on a significant target. The ministry’s report on July 23 mentioned neither Odesa nor the Odesa region.
The next day, July 24, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that, in fact, Russia had launched missiles at the port. But she said only a military boat was hit.
Also that day, Russia’s Defense Ministry confirmed a missile attack on the port. According to this Russian account, however, two military targets were hit – a boat and an ammunition depot.
"[I]n the seaport of Odesa, on the territory of a shipyard, high-precision missiles destroyed a Ukrainian warship and a warehouse of Harpoon missiles," the ministry said.
Public videos from the aftermath don’t substantiate a hit on an ammo warehouse, which normally would ignite a large explosion or prolonged detonation. According to a CBC News TV report showing the aftermath of the rocket attack, the damage to the port was minor, with no casualties.
Video recordings and a statement by the Ukrainian Operational Command South confirm that a fire broke out at the floating pumping station of the Odesa Sea Trade Port as a result of rocket fire. (The station delivers oil and other petroleum products to vessels.)
Interviews with residents close to the port of Odesa provide no evidence of an ammo detonation.
The port of Odesa is adjacent to the city's downtown. Harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles each carry a 488-pound explosive warhead. Had they detonated, the blast could have destroyed buildings and caused many casualties.
That commercial area is Zavods’ka Havan’ (Factory Harbor), where new grain terminals are located. Videos and photographs show that the damage was in Zavods’ka Havan’, where there are merchant ships but no warships.
“The blast wave damaged the windows in the building of the Odesa Art Museum. With this blow, Russia endangered the historical center of Odesa, included in the Tentative UNESCO World Heritage List,” Minister of Culture and Information Policy Alexander Tkachenko wrote on Telegram.
According to Google maps, this museum is located 0.3 miles from the new grain terminals at Zavods’ka Havan’. These grain terminals are located approximately 850 feet from where the Russian missiles hit.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its July 26 intelligence update: “The Russian MoD [Ministry of Defense] claimed to have hit a Ukrainian warship and a stockpile of anti-ship missiles. There is no indication that such targets were at the location the missiles hit.”