Real-time updates: Russia’s war in Ukraine

Firefighters work at the site of a Russian missile attack on the seaport of Odessa, Ukraine, on July 23.
Firefighters work at the site of a Russian missile attack on the seaport of Odessa, Ukraine, on July 23. (Joint Defense Forces South/Reuters)

The head of the United Nations, António Guterres, looked both flustered and flustered. grain export deal he made was signed in his presence in Istanbul on Friday.

Immediately after the signing by Russia, Ukraine and brokered by Turkey, the UN Secretary-General said the deal was a “beacon of hope” foreshadowing food aid to developing countries.

Unfortunately for Guterres and all those who were counting on much-needed food, his months of diplomatic work, including visits to Moscow and Kyiv to broker a deal, eventually revealed the limits to Russia’s credibility.

There is no explicit ceasefire in the deal, but Russia’s commitment is clear: “The Russian Federation is committed to facilitating the unhindered export of food, sunflower oil and fertilizers,” Guterres’ office said in a statement.

Less than 24 hours after it was signed, the post-deal lull in Odessa — the main port named in the agreement — was shattered when two Russian Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles crashed into the harbor.

Ukraine and its allies have deplored Russia’s signing of the grain deal, and many see it as evidence of duplicity.

Putin’s Weakness: Russia’s invasion of one of the world’s breadbaskets has sparked global food insecurity, but Moscow made concessions in a deal to let Ukrainian grain flow. This is usually called extortion.

To force Russia to release grain by lifting its blockade of Ukrainian ports, Guterres had to strike a parallel deal on Russia’s side, effectively easing some sanctions on food and fertilizer. UN representatives explained the diplomacy by the fact that “they are based on the principle that the measures introduced against the Russian Federation do not apply to these products.”

Lifting those sanctions would bring money into Moscow’s treasury, which is perhaps the main takeaway from the Guterres deal: Putin will make limited compromises for the sake of cash.

But in doing so, Putin may have discovered, like Tolkien’s Smaug, a potentially fatal vulnerability in his defenses. The mythical dragon’s weakness was the lack of scales, and Putin’s weakness appears to be the economic stings of international sanctions. Whatever his other reasons for agreeing to the deal, having to pay for the war is probably what matters most.

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