Daily Briefing: War in Ukraine U.N. Pushes for Grain Deal Extension

The U.N. is pushing for a renewal of a deal with Ukraine that has helped ease pressure on food prices globally.

Daily Briefing: War in Ukraine U.N. Pushes for Grain Deal Extension

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On Wednesday, the U.N. secretary general, Antnio Guterres, is scheduled to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv to discuss extending a deal that is set to expire this month. The deal has been credited with lessening the global food shortage and price increases.

The agreement between Russia and Ukraine, which allows the shipment of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea, will end on March 18 unless it is renewed. It was last extended in November after Russia agreed, along with Ukraine, Turkey, and the U.N., to extend the initiative three days before it was set to expire.

The few areas of cooperation between Russia and Ukraine during the yearlong war have been deals like the one brokered with the help of the United Nations and Turkey in July. This particular deal ended a Russian blockade of critical ports that had been going on for months, creating a backlog of millions of tons of grain in Ukrainian silos and contributing to a global food crisis.

The deal stipulates that Ukrainian marine pilots guide ships through Ukrainian minefields around the ports of Odesa and two others in the Black Sea. In exchange for safe passage, the Russian Navy agrees to allow teams representing all the parties to inspect the ships before they head to delivery ports. Returning ships are also inspected for arms.

A U.N. spokesman, Stphane Dujarric, said in a statement that in his meeting with Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Guterres plans to discuss continuing the deal as well as other relevant issues.

Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said on Sunday that his country was 'working hard for the smooth implementation and further extension' of the deal to extend the U.N.'s World Food Program. And David Beasley, the head of the U.N. World Food Program warned on Sunday that 'lives are at stake' if the agreement isn't renewed.

"We are taking all possible measures to continue" the agreement, Taras Vysotskyi, Ukraine's deputy minister of agriculture, said in a statement in February.

It is uncertain whether Moscow will cooperate. Last week, Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, met with Mr. Cavusoglu of Turkey and indicated that Russia is not satisfied with the current pact and might withdraw its support. According to a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry, Mr. Lavrov said that the agreement 'could continue only with due consideration of the interests of Russian agricultural and fertilizer producers, notably, their free access to world markets.'

The grain deal's primary goal was to end Russia's blockade of Ukrainian exports, but it also allowed for more shipments of Russian grain and fertilizer. As part of the deal, the United States and the European Union gave assurances that banks and companies involved in trading Russian grain and fertilizer would be exempt from sanctions.

"Mr. Lavrov threatened to block the extension of the deal last time, citing a failure by the United States and Europe to remove sanctions on Russian grain and fertilizer," according to Reuters. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's foreign minister, called the stance "blackmail."

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The Belarusian leader blames the Ukraine's intelligence service for an attack on a Russian surveillance plane.

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President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko on Tuesday blamed Ukraine's intelligence service for an attempted sabotage attack last month on a Russian aircraft at an air base near his capital.

"Another attempt by Belarus to create an artificial threat from Ukraine in order to justify support for Russian aggression," the Ukraine Foreign Ministry said in an immediate response, denying any Ukrainian role in the sabotage operation.

The drone attack in February near Minsk, the capital of Belarus, at the Machulishchi air base, has remained shrouded in mystery. This has stirred fears that Mr. Lukashenko, a highly unpredictable and eccentric dictator, might use it as a pretext to join Russia's war in Ukraine. The target was a Russian A50 surveillance aircraft parked on the runway.

Exiled Belarusian opposition activists claimed they had carried out the attempted sabotage, while Belarusian officials had previously insisted it never happened.

But on Tuesday, Mr. Lukashenko said that a 'terrorist' responsible for the attack had been arrested in Belarus along with 'more than 20 accomplices.' He made the remarks during a speech to security personnel that was peppered with insults directed at the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, whom he derided as a 'nit.'

"The person who carried out the attack was an IT specialist from Mr. Zelensky's hometown, Kryvyi Rih, who had been recruited to Ukraine's intelligence agency, known as the Security Service of Ukraine, or S.B.U., in 2014," Mr. Lukashenko said. He accused Ukraine of trying to "drag us into the war at the command of the Americans."

Since 1994, Mr. Lukashenko has been in power and has been dependent on Moscow for money, energy supplies, and security assistance. Mr. Lukashenko frequently mimics President Vladimir V. Putin's claims that the United States is dictating all of Ukraine's actions.

The Belarusian ministry of the interior released a videotaped confession of the 29-year-old suspect, who gave his name as Nikolai V. Shvets and said he had used two drones to carry out the attack. Another video posted on the ministry's channel on Telegram, a messaging service, showed armed Belarusian security agents storming into a brick house and grabbing a shirtless Mr. Shvets.

Mr. Lukashenko seemed to be trying to calm any alarm that he might use the February drone attack as a pretext to enter the war directly, or that Russia could use it to force Belarus into sending its troops into the war. He said that Ukraine and the United States wanted to push Belarus into the conflict, but those who think this will happen 'are mistaken.'

Ukraine has rarely acknowledged any role in armed actions beyond its borders. It has been somewhat shielded from accusations of involvement in the Belarus operation by the claims of exiled Belarusian activists who say that they carried out the attack.

In an opinion piece Tuesday in The Guardian, the opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya insisted that 'our antiwar partisans' were behind the attack. However, her opposition movement has no known military capability inside Belarus.

Though experts discounted the possibility that Ms. Tikhanovskaya's supporters carried out the attack, they said it was possible a Ukrainian operation could have received some assistance from anti-government activists in Belarus.

It is unclear how much damage the attack caused. Belarusian exiles said the drones caused significant damage, but a review of satellite images by the New York Times showed the aircraft to be structurally intact. However, a dark spot on the plane's radar indicated some damage.

Tomas Dapkus, reporting from Vilnius, Lithuania

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The Ukrainian ex-prosecutor who was involved in events related to Trump's first impeachment has lost his military command.

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Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine's former chief prosecutor, was a central figure in the events leading to the first impeachment of President Donald J. Trump. Mr. Trump was accused of withholding military aid from Ukraine in an effort to persuade President Volodymyr Zelensky's administration to investigate Hunter Biden.

As the prosecutor general under Mr. Zelensky's predecessor, Mr. Lutsenko had met with Mr. Trump's lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, and had discussed starting an investigation of Hunter Biden, President Biden's son. This made Mr. Lutsenko a tainted figure in Ukraine when he emerged from the impeachment trial in 2019.

Some saw Mr. Lutsenko's military promotion as a tone-deaf provocation of the Biden administration that is sure to irritate Mr. Zelensky's aides. The Ukrainian army is deeply dependent on military aid from the United States.

Mr. Lutsenko was abruptly reassigned last week from his position as commander of a platoon of drone operators near the city of Bakhmut. This has prompted accusations of political retribution and raises the possibility of friction not just between Ukraine's political parties, but between Mr. Zelensky and his military leadership.

"This little political revenge will not make Ukraine stronger," Mr. Lutsenko wrote on Facebook after he was stripped of his command. "It's high time to work on unity."

Mr. Zelensky's office did not respond when asked to comment on Mr. Lutsenko's military appointments.

Mr. Lutsenko's fellow soldiers have rallied to his defense, arguing that whatever his role in political squabbles in Ukraine in the past, he has redeemed himself by fighting on one of the most dangerous sections of the frontline.

During the war, Ukraine's raucous politics have been largely put on hold. Opposition politicians have rallied behind Mr. Zelensky as commander in chief, while quietly criticizing some of his policies. Many politicians, from both pro-government and opposition parties, volunteered to fight in the Ukrainian army.

Mr. Lutsenko is a member of European Solidarity, a party led by Mr. Zelensky's chief opponent in the 2019 presidential elections, Petro O. Poroshenko.

Mr. Zelensky had been criticized for seeming to hold a grudge against Mr. Poroshenko, even after defeating him in the election. Their rivalry had dominated Ukrainian politics.

"It's clearly a politically motivated decision," Volodymyr Ariev, a European Solidarity member of Parliament, said in a telephone interview, referring to the reversal of Mr. Lutsenko's military promotion.

Before Mr. Trump's interest in having Ukraine investigate Hunter Biden became public, Mr. Lutsenko, who was serving as prosecutor general under Mr. Poroshenko at the time, met with Mr. Trump's lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, and discussed an investigation of Hunter Biden.

Mr. Lutsenko was cast as a supporter of Mr. Giuliani's plan in testimony that emerged during the impeachment trial. Democrats said that the plan was intended to help Mr. Trump in the 2020 election. Mr. Lutsenko has said that he met with Mr. Giuliani to discuss other law enforcement issues and had declined to investigate Hunter Biden.

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It was Christmas Day, and four fighters from a volunteer Ukrainian special forces team had slipped over the border into Russian territory. Their mission was to scout out enemy positions, place mines to blow up Russian military equipment, and engage in sabotage operations to undermine Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Four soldiers were killed soon after they entered Russia.

Ukraine regularly undertakes covert incursions that bring the war to Russia in small ways, though they rarely talk about them openly.

On Tuesday, at a crowded funeral at St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery in central Kyiv, the fighters were buried. Their fellow soldiers were eager to talk, praising their comrades and offering a rare glimpse into a shadow war that has been playing out for months. In this war, Ukrainian forces seek out targets inside Russia itself.

"It is important for us to bring the war to the enemy's territory," said Marat, a 51-year-old soldier and member of a battalion that has engaged in clandestine operations. The Times is identifying the soldiers by first name only for security reasons.

In exchange for the bodies of dead Russian soldiers, the bodies of the four soldiers were returned to Ukraine.

The cause of death for the four was still being determined. The bodies were riddled with bullets, and one was still wearing a tourniquet. It remained unclear if the soldiers had stumbled into a minefield and were shot later, had died in a shootout or were executed in some fashion, according to the leader of the battalion, identified by his call-sign, Borghese. Some members of the volunteer battalion said they believed the four were killed after refusing to surrender.

Borghese said that the Russians had deliberately mutilated the bodies.

Despite the extraordinary danger of cross-border missions, members of the Bratstvo battalion, which means 'brotherhood', said the risks were worth it because Russian forces involved in the destruction of Ukraine should not feel safe anywhere.

For months, mysterious explosions have been blowing up ammunition depots, fuel storage facilities, railroad tracks, and other industrial targets inside of Russia related to Moscow's war effort.

When it comes to strikes inside Russian territory, the Ukrainian military has largely stuck to a policy of strategic ambiguity, neither confirming nor denying any role in such attacks.

The fighters were identified as Yuriy Horovets, 34; Maksym Mykhaylov, 32; Taras Karpyuk, 39; and Bohdan Lyagov, 19.

A member of the battalion, Vladyslav, 22, who has gone on missions in occupied parts of Ukraine and inside Russia itself, said that attacking in Russia rather than Ukraine is less dangerous in some ways. He explained that the occupied territory inside Ukraine is now covered in land mines and Russian soldiers are everywhere. The New York Times witnessed two of the Bratstvo operations behind the enemy lines in an occupied region of southern Ukraine in November. This mission included two of the soldiers killed in Russia.

"I can't go into detail about the specifics of the large-scale operations," Vladyslav said, "other than to say they can include trying to destroy bridges, airfields, oil depots and other targets in Russia and Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine."

The first time he was asked to go on a mission across the border, he recalls feeling pride. He declined to go into detail about that mission but said his first thought was: 'Finally.'

He was with the four soldiers shortly before they died and recalled that they were excited for the operation.

"They went to the mission on Christmas night, and the next afternoon, it was already known they wouldn't be back," he said.

Andriy Kovaliov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian General Staff, which is responsible for overall military strategy, confirmed on his personal Facebook page that one of the soldiers, Mr. Horovets, died during a combat mission 'on enemy territory.'

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"We will not allow the enemy to use Ukrainian territory to attack our cities and towns," said Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council.

Ukrainian officials have said that they will not allow Russia to use Ukrainian territory to attack their cities and towns. On Monday, Ukrainian special forces destroyed an unmanned Russian drone.

"We will not allow the enemy to use Ukrainian territory to attack our cities and towns," said Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council.