The decision to withdraw from the international arrangement guaranteeing the safety of grain exports from Ukrainian ports, announced in Moscow on July 17, signifies a significant effort to escalate non-kinetic hostilities to break the pattern of slow-moving defeat in this war of attrition.
Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the benefits that Ukraine harvested from the grain deal, allegedly at the expense of the Russian portions of the agreement, and mainstream Moscow commentators argue that the cancellation was not a surprise and that hopes for rehabilitation are in vain (Rossiiskaya gazeta, July 18).
A predictable demarche
The conditions that Putin has set are indeed impossible, and, in any case, rewarding Russia for a series of missile attacks on the granaries in Odesa with the relaxation of sanctions is not an option the leaders of the Western coalition can possibly entertain. Putin’s intentions behind this predictable demarche go far beyond denying Ukraine a source of export revenues or bargaining about transportation costs for Russian grain (Forbes.ru, July 17).
In the aftermath of the still-reverberating Wagner mutiny on June 24, Putin has been compelled to demonstrate resolve and personal control over crisis management to various domestic audiences, from the bureaucrats doubting his grasp of economic reality to the fighting generals disgusted with the quality of strategic leadership (Novayagazeta.eu, July 21).
He has yet, for reasons most of his subordinates cannot comprehend, to deliver exemplary punishment to Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group, who continues to call the conduct of the war a “disgrace”; yet, other critics have been muzzled, including even such impeccably “military-patriotic” warmongers as Igor Girkin, also known as Strelkov (The Moscow Times, July 21).
Putin needs to prove that heavy retribution is administered after the daring Ukrainian attack on the Kerch bridge on July 17; however, the series of brutal missile strikes on Odesa has not discouraged Ukraine from new attacks on Crimea, where yet another ammunition depot exploded spectacularly on July 22 (Svoboda, July 22).
A non-negotiable escalatory step
Taking a non-negotiable escalatory step, Putin also sought to test the unity of the Western alliance, assuming that the display of solidarity at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, was merely a camouflage for deepening disagreements (Russiancouncil.ru, July 19).
It is the fear of provoking a direct clash with Russia that is identified in the Kremlin as the weakest point in the enemy’s posture, and, in accentuating this timidity, a small-scale naval exercise in intercepting and destroying a transport ship was staged in the northwestern sector of the Black Sea, which the Russian Ministry of Defense seeks to close for commercial shipping (RBC, July 21).
A different approach is taken toward those NATO members that are seen as the most hostile to Russia, with Poland singled out by Russian propaganda as the group’s most ambitious but overreaching leader (Moskovskij komsomolets, July 21). Putin’s invectives regarding Polish plans for annexing Lviv made the virtual meeting of the Russian Security Council on July 21 appear bizarre even for seasoned observers. But behind the Russian president’s trademark abuse of history, the intention to sow discord between Poland and Germany is unmistakable (Kommersant, July 21).
Another important addressee of Putin’s crude messaging is Turkey, which has invested concerted efforts in negotiating the grain deal and was one of its primary beneficiaries. Thus, Ankara is still officially hopeful about its revival (Izvestiya, July 21).
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in anticipation of the meeting with US President Joe Biden in Vilnius, had significantly shifted his balancing act and confirmed that Ukraine deserved an invitation to NATO, much to Putin’s consternation, amplified by the furious diatribes of “military-patriotic” bloggers (Topwar.ru, July 15).
The cancellation of the grain deal, accompanied by the aggressive moves by the Black Sea Fleet aimed at blockading Odesa, constitutes a direct challenge to Turkey, which is building up its naval capabilities, envisaging a role as protector of safe commercial shipping in the Black Sea (Svoboda, July 21). Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy discussed options for reopening the grain corridor with Erdogan prior to requesting that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg convene an emergency meeting of the newly created NATO-Ukraine Council (RIA Novosti, July 23).
Styling himself as a peacemaker, Erdogan would much prefer to negotiate a solution; however, his attempts to invite Putin for a visit, or at least to have one of their frequent phone conversations, have been cut short by the Kremlin’s clarification that no such contacts are planned (Rossiiskaya gazeta, July 18).
The Russia-Africa summit
Currently, Putin’s top priority on his agenda is the long-planned Russia-Africa Summit, due to take place in St. Petersburg from July 26 to 28, with 49 states planned to be represented, about half of those in high-level capacities, according to Russian sources (TASS, July 18).
The cancellation of the grain deal is undoubtedly bad news for many African countries, but Moscow is trying its diplomatic best to turn this disruption of global food markets into its advantage (Kommersant, July 21). Its capacity for supplying additional volumes of grain is limited, but the supply of declarations on readiness to contribute to food security in Africa will hit a new high (Valdaiclub.com, July 20).
Another major concern for many African states is the outcome of the Wagner mutiny and Prigozhin’s declared intention to shift the focus of his operations and deployment back to Africa (Meduza, July 19). It will be impossible for Moscow to persist with the habitual denials of responsibility for the crimes committed by the Wagner mercenaries, who previously posed as a “private enterprise.” Yet, at the same time, the ability of the Russian Defense Ministry to control this maverick conflict entrepreneur has been seriously compromised (Current Time TV, July 10).
The futility of attempts to talk about peace
Too many desires and frustrations, ranging from punishing Ukraine for attacks on Crimea to snubbing Erdogan for embracing Zelenskyy and exacerbating Africa’s dependency on Russian food supplies, underpin the Kremlin’s exit from the grain deal. The recent step up the ladder of escalation in the war cannot achieve the objective of buying more time and postponing the prospect of defeat.
Moscow is certainly not ready for any real peace talks, but it needs more states to develop various initiatives on terminating hostilities. And the cancellation of one of the few negotiated frameworks that yielded positive results proves the futility of attempts to talk about peace with war-obsessed Putin.
He may have an entirely distorted impression about how the war is really progressing, but he is too far down the road of dangerous delusions to return to the grim reality. Even his “best friend” in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping, has stopped talking to him, possibly because the leading importer of Ukrainian grain is in fact China.