United Nations chief Antonio Guterres looked simultaneously relieved and apprehensive as the grain export deal he brokered was signed in front of him in Istanbul on Friday.
Sadly for Guterres and all those counting on the much-needed food, his months of diplomatic slog – including visits to Moscow and Kyiv to nail the deal – ultimately illuminated the limitations of trusting Russia.
There is no explicit ceasefire in the deal, but Russia’s obligations were clearly spelled out: “The Russian Federation has committed to facilitate the unimpeded export of food, sunflower oil and fertilizers,” a statement from Guterres’ office said.
Less than 24 hours after its signing, the post-deal calm in Odesa – the principle port named in the accord – was shattered as two sea-launched Russian Kalibr cruise missiles slammed into the harbor.
Windows were blown out in buildings almost a mile away. Firemen rushed to the port to put out flames on several burning boats. According to officials, one harbor worker was injured.
The damage could have been much worse; two more of the $6 million precision missiles had been shot down by Ukraine’s air defense. Beachgoers in Odesa, who last year jostled for spots on the sand with Russian holidaymakers, cheered as the intercept detonated high above their heads.
Russia’s apparent coda to the grain agreement it had signed has been deplored by Ukraine and its allies – and widely held as proof of its duplicity.
Speaking to CNN within hours of the attack, Ukrainian member of parliament Oleksiy Goncharenko said Russia was “showing they want to continue to threaten the world’s food security.”
“The attack cast serious doubt on the credibility of Russia’s commitment,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, adding that it “undermines the work of the UN, Turkey, and Ukraine to get critical food to world markets.”
“It shows not a word [Russian President Vladimir Putin] says can be trusted,” said Liz Truss, the UK’s foreign minister – and potential next prime minister.
Remarkably, Russia’s initial response to reports of the attack was denial.
According to Turkey – co-signatory to the deal and an arbiter overseeing its safe and fair implementation – the Kremlin told Ankara “in no uncertain terms” that it had “nothing to do with this attack.”
Yet just 12 hours later, Russia’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reversed the initial lie. She said they were Russian strikes after all and claimed the attack had taken out Ukrainian “military infrastructure” in the harbor.
Ukraine has said the strikes hit a pumping station at the Odesa port.
Such obfuscation is run-of-the-mill fare for Russian officials – and that’s the point here. The grain deal has changed nothing in Moscow’s calculus for fighting the war, despite all Guterres’ hard work and diplomatic uplift.
And the damage done here is not just reminding the world of Moscow’s ambiguous relationship with the truth – Russia has also burned the good faith of their intermediary in the deal, Turkey.
Under the terms of the agreement, Turkey is establishing a Joint Command Centre (JCC) with UN help to monitor compliance. But Russia has already torpedoed all trust, in keeping with its cynical approach to the whole war on Ukraine.
Russia’s invasion of one of the world’s breadbaskets has caused global food insecurity, yet Moscow got concessions through the deal in order to allow Ukraine’s grain to flow. That’s usually called extortion.
To get Russia to release the grain by ending blockades on Ukrainian ports, Guterres had to strike a parallel deal on the side with Russia, effectively easing some sanctions on food and fertilizer. UN officials explained the diplomacy as “based on the principle that measures imposed on the Russian Federation do not apply to these products.”
Clearing those sanctions will bring money into Moscow’s coffers – which is perhaps the enduring takeaway of Guterres’ deal: Putin will make limited compromises for cash.
But in doing so, Putin has perhaps revealed, like Tolkien’s Smaug, a potentially fatal vulnerability in his defenses. The mythical dragon’s weakness was a missing scale, and Putin’s appears to be the economic bite of international sanctions. Whatever his other reasons for agreeing to the deal, the need to pay for the war likely weighs heaviest.
Speaking in Istanbul after Saturday’s missile strike, the Ukrainian deputy infrastructure minister Yurii Vaskov said technical meetings to implement the deal were ongoing.
“Ukraine is determined to start grain export as soon as possible,” he said.
Russia’s “attack is also on the agenda,” Vaskov added.
Guterres was right to be hopeful; the future effectiveness of the UN Security Council rides on his ability to keep Russia from escalating its war of choice. But if he was apprehensive at the signing table on Friday, nothing he has seen so far will assuage his fears. Not least Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday embellishing the deal, claiming Russian vessels would help escort the cargo ships. A statement, like the missile strike, willfully aimed at goading Ukraine.