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Opinion Putin attacks Odessa and a hungry world’s hopes

Firefighters put out a fire in the port of Odessa, Ukraine, after a Russian missile attack Saturday. (Efrem Lukatsky/Odesa City Hall Press Office via AP)
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Well, that didn’t take long. On Friday, Russia’s defense minister raised a hungry world’s hopes by signing an agreement with the president of Turkey and the secretary general of the United Nations, according to which Moscow committed to facilitate resumption of large-scale grain shipments from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Russia had previously blockaded these, causing stress on global grain markets. Less than 24 hours later, on Saturday, Russian ships launched four long-range missiles at the largest of those ports, Odessa, two of which Ukrainian air defenses intercepted — and two of which caused some structural damage, though no destruction of grain or human casualties. The United States’ ambassador in Kyiv called the attack “outrageous,” which is an understatement.

Saturday’s events were not surprising to those familiar with President Vladimir Putin’s record, in this war and others. He is notorious for violating humanitarian agreements establishing safe “corridors” through which Russian forces and their allies herded Syrian civilians escaping war zones in that country. Often, the fleeing people came under fire or faced violent harassment and arrests. Compliance with the new accord would force Russia to abandon its strategy of denying Ukraine agricultural export earnings, including stealing, and reselling, Ukraine’s stockpiled grain — even, in some areas, burning crops. Depending on where the missiles actually struck, Russia might not have violated the letter of the agreement, under which it reserved the right to strike sections of Ukrainian ports not directly used for grain exports. Still, it clearly violated the spirit.

All of the above helps explain why Ukraine was wise not to deal directly with Moscow, but to sign up for a process that, technically, consists of parallel commitments Ukraine and Russia each made to Turkey and the United Nations. Ukraine prudently offered only escorts through its maritime minefields, not actual demining, lest it weaken defenses against Russia’s navy.

At the same time, Ukrainian officials were wise to announce after Saturday’s attack that they will continue pursuing the agreement, which would have taken some time to implement in any case. Not only is it still in Ukraine’s economic interest, but one goal of Russia’s attack was likely to provoke a Ukrainian pullout, after which Moscow would blame Kyiv for the consequences. And the downside of a failed deal can be measured by the potential upside of a successful one: Ukraine produced a tenth of the world’s wheat exports during 2021 — with populous countries such as Egypt, Bangladesh, Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan, as well as small and economically struggling Lebanon, among the biggest customers. The United Nations World Food Program, which distributes aid to the world’s poor, got 40 percent of its wheat from Ukraine before the war. With even wealthy nations hammered by rising food prices, millions of people around the world could benefit from a flow of 20 million metric tons of Ukrainian grain and other foodstuffs to the world market over the next 120 days.

If Mr. Putin destroys the deal before it gets started — despite the advantages it offers his agricultural exports — he must take the blame. Meanwhile, Turkey and the United Nations must fulfill their roles as guarantors by holding him accountable, and the United States must send weapons Ukraine needs to protect its ports.