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 subsequent lull in Odessa — the main port named in the agreement — was broken when two Russian Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles crashed into the harbor.
Windows had been smashed in buildings almost a mile away. Firefighters rushed to the port to put out the flames on several burning boats. According to official figures, one port worker was injured.
The damage could have been much greater; two more of the $6 million precision-guided missiles were shot down by Ukrainian air defenses. Beachgoers in Odessa, who were competing for sand spots with Russian holidaymakers last year, cheered when an interceptor exploded high above their heads.
Ukraine and its allies have deplored Russia’s signing of the grain deal, and many see it as evidence of duplicity.
Speaking to CNN hours after the attack, Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, said Russia was “demonstrating that it wants to continue to threaten world food security.”
“This attack calls into question the credibility of Russia’s commitment,” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, adding that it “undermines the work of the UN, Turkey and Ukraine to bring critical food to world markets.”
“He doesn’t show a word [Russian President Vladimir Putin] says he can be trusted,” said Liz Truss, British Foreign Secretary and potential next prime minister.
Notably, Russia’s initial response to reports of the attack was a denial.
According to Turkey, a signatory to the agreement 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.”
However, just 12 hours later, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denied the original lie. She said it was Russian strikes after all and said the attack had destroyed Ukrainian “military infrastructure” in the harbor.
Ukraine said the strikes were on a pumping station in the port of Odessa.
Such obfuscation is commonplace for Russian officials, and that’s the point. The grain deal didn’t change anything in Moscow’s war calculations, despite all Guterres’ hard work and diplomatic upsurge.
And the damage done here is not only to remind the world of Moscow’s ambiguous relationship with the truth – Russia also burned the good faith of its middleman in the deal, Turkey.
Under the terms of the agreement, Turkey is establishing a Joint Command Center (JCC) with the help of the UN to monitor compliance. But Russia has already undermined all credibility with its cynical approach to the entire war with Ukraine.
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.
Speaking in Istanbul after Saturday’s missile attack, Ukraine’s Deputy Infrastructure Minister Yuriy Vaskov said that technical meetings to implement the deal were ongoing.
“Ukraine is determined to start exporting grain as soon as possible,” he said.
“A Russian attack is also on the agenda,” Vaskov added.
Guterres was right to hope; The future effectiveness of the UN Security Council depends on its ability to keep Russia from escalating a war of its own choosing. But if he was worried at the signing table on Friday, nothing he’s seen so far will assuage his fears. Not least, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sugar-coated the deal on Sunday, saying Russian ships would help escort the cargo ships. The statement, like the missile attack, is deliberately aimed at inciting Ukraine.