Today's D Brief: Russia continues port strikes, threatens civilian ships; Wagner trains in Belarus; MI6 assesses Ukraine’s advance; And a bit more.

For the third consecutive night, Russian missiles attacked vital Ukrainian port cities, with a particular focus on destroying Ukraine’s ability to export its corn, wheat, and other farm products to dozens of nations around the world, though the bulk of it sailed to China, followed by Spain, and Turkey, according to the United Nations.  

Russia used 38 cruise missiles and exploding drones in Thursday’s attacks, 18 of which—including two Kalibr sea-based cruise missiles, three land-launched cruise missiles, and 13 of the Iranian-made drones—were shot down by Ukrainian forces, according to Kyiv’s Defense Ministry. Ukraine’s largest two port cities of Odesa and Mykolaiv were targeted in the strikes, which wounded more than two dozen people and damaged China’s consulate in Odesa. 

Russia’s military also said that starting today, any civilian ships going to Ukrainian ports via the Black Sea could be attacked since they may be “potential carriers of military cargo.” This threat follows Moscow’s exit from the Black Sea Grain Initiative earlier this week, which was announced after the $3.6 billion Kerch Bridge, linking Russia with occupied Ukrainian Crimea, was attacked early Monday, apparently using naval drones. Reuters reports no ships have departed Ukrainian ports since Russia withdrew from the grain deal on Monday. 

Markets responded negatively to Russia’s shipping threat almost immediately. “Wheat prices on the European stock exchange soared by 8.2% on Wednesday from the previous day, to €253.75 (£220; $284) per tonne, while corn prices were up 5.4%,” the BBC reported Thursday. And “US wheat futures jumped 8.5%—their highest daily rise since just after Russia's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.”

Blocking Ukrainian grain from markets “is a real war crime,” the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Thursday. “One cannot imagine that millions of tonnes of wheat remain blocked in Ukraine while in the rest of the world people are suffering hunger,” he said in Luxembourg. “This is a real war crime,” he added, according to Reuters.

At least one Ukrainian lawmaker cast the development in particularly stark terms. “Clearly Putin has an aim to disrupt food security and cause a peak in world food prices, which in the developed countries will lead to inflation, but in developing countries that will lead to social destabilization, starvation and new waves of migrants,” Oleksiy Goncharenko said in a video on Thursday. 

From the White House’s perspective, “We believe that this is a coordinated effort to justify any attacks against civilian ships in the Black Sea and lay blame on Ukraine for these attacks,” National Security Council spokesperson Adam Hodge said Wednesday. 

New: Ukraine’s military has returned the favor, and now says that starting Friday at midnight, all vessels headed to Russian ports or occupied Ukrainian ones “may be considered by Ukraine as carrying military cargo with all the corresponding risks.”

“The fate of the cruiser ‘Moskva’ proves that the Defense Forces of Ukraine have the necessary means to repel Russian aggression at sea,” Kyiv’s military added, alluding to the 14 April 2022 sinking of Russia’s Black Sea flagship vessel, which Ukraine is believed to have attacked using two R-360 Neptune anti-ship missiles. 

A future Russian offensive may be developing in Ukraine’s northeast, where a military spokesman warned this week (Telegraph) that Moscow has built up “More than 100,000 personnel, more than 900 tanks, more than 550 artillery systems and 370 rocket salvo systems” near the city of Kupyansk, in Kharkiv. 

However, Ukraine’s deputy military chief Hanna Maliar noted this could be an effort “to distract and drag in our forces” closer to Kharkiv as opposed to further south where Ukrainian forces are slowly advancing in their counteroffensive efforts. 

Additional reading: 

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. If you haven’t subscribed to this newsletter yet, you can do that quickly here. On this day in 1936, representatives of Australia, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Japan, Romania, Yugoslavia, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union signed the Montreux Convention in Switzerland, which authorized Turkey as the gatekeeper to the Black Sea, via the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits.

U.S. seeking soldier’s return from N. Korea. “The U.S. is working hard to ascertain information on Private Travis King's wellbeing, Reuters reports, citing U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Sung Kim, who said on Thursday that the efforts are aimed at “ensuring his safety and return.” King is in North Korean custody after leaving a tour group and walking into the country.

Kim spoke ahead of a meeting with South Korean and Japanese officials on meeting North Korea’s nuclear threats. A bit more, here.

New NSA leader coming soon? The Senate Armed Services Committee this morning is considering the nomination of Air Force Lt. Gen. Timothy Haugh to be the next director of the National Security Agency. That hearing began at 9 a.m. ET, and is still ongoing. Catch the livestream here.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth is expected to speak later this morning at the annual Aspen Security Forum. That’s slated for 11:35 a.m. ET. Livestream it via YouTube, here

And this afternoon, NSA Cybersecurity Director Rob Joyce joins a panel discussion on “Democracy, Security, and Artificial Intelligence” with Microsoft President Brad Smith. That’s scheduled for 6 p.m. ET. Catch that one on YouTube, here

Also speaking in Aspen today: Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, former State Secretary Mike Pompeo, recently-departed Pentagon Undersecretary Colin Kahl, NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană, and CIA Director William Burns. Friday is the last day of activity in Aspen. Review the full agenda here

And lastly: Filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s nuclear biopic, “Oppenheimer” opens in theaters across the U.S. this evening. We plan on catching a showing at some point this weekend, and will be discussing it with a nuclear anthropologist in our next Defense One Radio podcast. 

Do you plan to see it? Let us know why or why not, and—assuming you’re attending or obtained an advanced screening of the film—you can even give us your own review of the 3-hour epic by sending us an email.