Russia’s War on Ukraine and the International Stage
Russia’s War on Ukraine and the International Stage
In the ongoing war in Ukraine, Russia has occupied a part of the country extending from areas marked by major cities of Kharkiv in the north, to Kherson in the south, or around 22 percent of the country. On the waterfront, Ukraine has lost the Azov Sea and most of its Black Sea coast to Russia, which can now control Ukraine’s outlet to the sea.
Ukraine, armed with weapons supplied by the west, is not giving up and is on the counter-offensive in a number of areas.
Russian strikes have caused dozens of civilian deaths and destruction of infrastructure. After a number of incidents which are said to qualify as clear cases of war crimes, most recently, 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war, mostly Azov Brigade members, died at the prison camp in Olenivka.
The camp is controlled by the Russian-backed separatist Donetsk People's Republic and Russia has claimed that the camp was hit by Ukrainian missiles. Ukraine on the other hand, says it was arson by Russia to destroy evidence of terrible misconduct and torture. On a last-minute development note, Russia's Supreme Court designated the Azov Regiment a terrorist organization, meaning its members are no longer considered POWs but terrorists.
Russia’s strategic objective in Ukraine varies from permanently establishing itself in so-called “Russian majority areas” to “helping the Ukrainian people to get rid of the unacceptable regime” as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated at the Arab League summit in Cairo. (Remember that Russia is unreservedly critical of countries which support regime change in Syria, but does not see any harm in changing the elected president and government in Ukraine.)
The war is also fiercely fought on the economic front and the shockwaves across the globe are felt most in terms of food and energy security.
The West has sanctioned Russia for invading Ukraine and Russia is responding by basically using grain and energy. There is enormous effort on all sides to mitigate the effects and find alternatives.
On the food security side, as is well known by now, Ukraine and Russia are among world’s largest grain producers and exporters. Ukraine grain exports have been restricted because of the closure of Black Sea. Ukraine sends what it can through alternative routes but that makes up only a small portion of what it used to or what it needs to export.
On the other hand, even though sanctions on Russia do not include agricultural products, its exports are also affected because of higher insurance rates and difficulties in payments.
The grain deal signed in Istanbul on July 22 has raised hopes for relief. The Joint Coordination Center, which will run and monitor the operation, was inaugurated on July 27, again in Istanbul. Implementation mechanisms which cover departure from Ukrainian ports, safe passage and inspection are in place.
The first ship, Razoni, carrying 26,000 tons of corn left the Ukrainian port of Odessa on Tuesday morning and reached Turkish territorial waters the same evening. The ship has been inspected and is on its way to Lebanon, the country which has been identified by the World Bank as facing one of the worst financial crises since the mid-19th century.
If the trial journey is successful, more ships loaded with grain will follow.
On the energy security side, the first move came on February 22, when Germany suspended the Nord Stream 2 project in response to Moscow's recognition of two breakaway regions in Ukraine.
Most recently, Gazprom cut gas deliveries via the Nord Stream pipeline to 20 percent of its capacity and also stopped supplying gas to Latvia. Russia had already stopped gas deliveries to Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Poland, claiming technical faults or refusal of these countries to proceed in accordance with new rules of payment in rubles.
On the diplomatic front, the stage is also active.
Russia’s Lavrov visited Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and Congo - important African countries in their own right - and blamed food problems on western sanctions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met his Iranian and Turkish counterparts in Tehran on July 19. Among the many issues discussed was economic cooperation and how to deal with several matters, including sanctions.
On July 26, Iran's Economy Minister Ehsan Khandouzi stated that Iran and Russia would conduct their economic and trade related transactions not in dollars but in rubles. How (or rather whether) these statements will be implemented remains to be seen.
Even though the United States and Russia ae facing each other on opposite sides of the war, their foreign ministers held a phone conversation on July 29. It was their first since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Reports indicated that among the issues they discussed were implementation of the grain deal and prisoner swap. Sharp disagreements reportedly remained on the rest of the issues.
Turkey is the only country from the western camp that has been able to keep talking to the Russians and with some results too.
Presidents Erdogan and Putin met in Sochi on Friday. This was the first visit by the leader of a NATO member country to Russia since the war started.
Erdogan may be using his relations with Putin as a reminder to the West of Turkey’s strategic importance and its role as a useful mediator/facilitator. The grain deal has been a concrete example of this.
Ukraine was the number one agenda item in discussions. Some speculated whether there could be a possibility for a new initiative, this time in the energy field for example. Nothing is impossible in international relations but I believe that this is an over optimistic expectation, at least at this stage.
Syria again was the other major issue that was discussed in Sochi. Russia, which is deeply involved in Syria since its direct military intervention in 2015, is known to be opposed to a new Turkish military operation. On the other hand, Russia may be working to bring Turkey and the Bashar Assad regime together in a way that would avert a military operation and serve its own strategic interests.
A recent statement by the Turkish president led to speculation that Turkish drones, which have proved very effective in action in a number of theaters of conflict, including Ukraine, will be an item on the agenda. Putin is said to have proposed to Erdogan to build a drone production facility in Russia.
It is not clear whether there is a serious credibility to this news. If that is the case, it will be yet another addition to a list of strategic cooperation items between the two countries, including the purchase of the S-400 air defense system, building of a nuclear reactor and pipelines carrying Russian gas to Turkey and Europe.
Many in the West and Turkey believe that keeping relations with Russia may have its benefits but going too deep could come with problems on various fronts.