Ukraine grain deal is feel-good event, but road to peace is long and winding

Under the agreement, Ukrainian vessels would guide ships in and out of Ukraine’s heavily mined ports, and Russia would agree not to attack the area while shipments were moving. Turkey’s role will be to inspect ships leaving Ukrainian ports for smuggled arms

July 25, 2022 by M.K. Bhadrakumar
Ukraine grain deal
Combines work on a wheat field near the village of Talniki in Siberia (File photo). For the first time since the days of the tsars, Russia has emerged in recent years as the world’s largest wheat exporter.

The agreements signed in Istanbul on Friday regarding the export of grain out of Ukraine and Russia catch the headlines as a major development from the angle of global food security, which it surely is. Between around 22 million tonnes of grain from last year’s harvest now trapped inside Ukraine due to the war, and an estimated 41 million tonnes from Russia’s 2022/23 wheat exports, around 60 million tonnes, are reaching the world grain market.

A conservative estimate is that Russia’s 2022 wheat crop will reach 85 million tonnes and if the weather holds good, it may go up to 90 million tonnes, a record harvest. Suffice to say, Russia’s importance to the global wheat balance in the new season is likely to be unprecedented. Supplies from Russia will account for more than 20% of the 2022/23 global wheat trade, consolidating its position as the world’s number one wheat exporting country.

Thus, two sets of agreements were signed in Istanbul, one relating to the modalities of transportation of the Ukrainian grain from three designated ports on the Black Sea — Odessa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhne — via a “grain corridor” to Turkey, and a second one between Russia and the United Nations relating to the lifting of Western sanctions on Russia’s exports of wheat and fertilizer.

In reality, Russia is getting sanctions waiver from the West even as it is facilitating the operation of the “grain corridor” out of Ukrainian ports in the war zone. Is there a linkage between the two? The answer is “yes” and “no”. But the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports followed the Western restrictions on shipping and insurance for Russian ports was more than a coincidence.

Therefore, this is a political victory for Russia — apart from substantial income out of the  exports (roughly, $20 billion) and  continued Russian presence in the important markets in Africa, the West Asian region, etc. which has strategic implications for Russian foreign policy in the medium and long term.

Under the agreement, Ukrainian vessels would guide ships in and out of Ukraine’s heavily mined ports, and Russia would agree not to attack the area while shipments were moving. Turkey’s role will be to inspect ships leaving Ukrainian ports for smuggled arms. In effect, Turkey has emerged as a broker between Russia and Ukraine under UN supervision from a Joint Coordination Center being set up in Istanbul for the implementation of the accord.

The fact that Russia and Ukraine could strike a deal at all is important enough. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has welcomed the grain deal in Istanbul as “a positive step towards addressing the far-reaching impacts of Russia’s war… The international community must now hold Russia accountable for this deal.” The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, on his part, said Moscow finds it “gratifying that Washington and Brussels have stopped obstructing the path toward an agreement on grain.”

Things are adding up 

The big question is whether this development and the “feel-good” it created  in a “win-win” spirit betwixt two warring nations would have any downstream impact. The indications are mostly discouraging but the dawn of peace often breaks unexpectedly.

The military situation in Ukraine is somewhat static at the moment, although it can change abruptly. There have been no breakthroughs on the front lines since Russian forces seized the last two Ukrainian-held cities in the eastern province of Luhansk in late June and early July. The Russian operations in the Donetsk region have generally slowed down in the past fortnight but that could be attributed to the hilly terrain surrounding the key city of Slavyansk, which is of strategic importance. (The Ukrainian steppes begin to the west of Slavyansk.)

Meanwhile, a new phase of the war has commenced with the deployment of the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) supplied by Pentagon, which fires GPS-guided rockets at targets 80 kilometers away, a distance that puts it out of reach of most Russian artillery systems. Conceivably, it  bolsters Ukraine’s strike capability. But then, HIMARS is neither a game changer nor a compensation for the vast depletion of Ukrainian fighting capabilities during these five months of fighting, which will take years to recoup.

Kiev seems to believe that its gradually increasing supply of Western arms, such as HIMARS, will enable it to recapture lost territory. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed Friday’s grain deal as unlocking around $10 billion worth of grain exports, but on the war as such, he said there could be no ceasefire unless lost territory was retaken.

Zelensky said, “Freezing the conflict with the Russian Federation means a pause that gives the Russian Federation a break for rest. They will not use this pause to change their geopolitics or to renounce their claims on the former Soviet republics.” The White House on Friday also announced $270 million in fresh support for Kiev, which includes four more HIMARS and up to 580 Phoenix Ghost drones, “produced specifically for Ukraine.”

That said, the fact remains that the wheat deal is yet another instance of sanctions waiver by the European Union, where its own interests are also  involved. In particular, shortage of fertilizer has become a hot button issue in Europe, which recently witnessed farmers’ protests.

To be sure, things are adding up. The EU is increasingly hard-pressed to come up with credible sanction packages anymore. In the latest instance, after oil and gas and fertilizer, the EU blocked a proposal on Thursday to sanction a Russian metals company, which is a critical supplier of titanium to Airbus.

The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban probably articulated a thought that is gaining ground in the European mind when he said in a speech in Romania on Saturday that the EU needs a new strategy on the war in Ukraine, as the sanctions against Moscow have not worked. “A new strategy is needed which should focus peace talks and drafting a good peace proposal … instead of winning the war,” Orban said.

Orban recalled that the Western strategy has been built on four pillars: the first that Ukraine would win a war against Russia with NATO weapons; second, that sanctions would weaken Russia and destabilize its leadership; third, that sanctions would hurt Russia more than Europe; and, fourth, that the world would line up in support of Europe.

This strategy has failed, according to Orban, as governments in Europe are collapsing “like dominoes”, energy prices have surged and a new strategy was needed now. “We are sitting in a car that has a puncture in all four tires, it is absolutely clear that the war cannot be won in this way,” he said, adding that Ukraine will never win the war this way “quite simply because the Russian army has asymmetrical dominance.”

Significantly, aside the plain-speak, the salience of Orban’s speech was his call for US-Russia talks. “Only Russian-US talks can put an end to the conflict because Russia wants security guarantees” only Washington can give, Orban said.

Orban’s speech came just two days after an unannounced visit to Moscow by the Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto on Thursday, ostensibly on a mission to discuss with his counterpart FM Sergey Lavrov the possibility of securing more gas supplies from Russia. Interestingly, Szijjarto flew to Moscow from Washington.

While in Washington, in an interview with the Washington Times, Szijjarto called for immediate talks to end the war in Ukraine, saying “all wars end up in negotiations” and the world should be focused on how to achieve peace by quickly bringing about a cessation of the nearly five-month-old conflict.

Of course, Orban’s credentials to facilitate US-Russia talks are impeccable — and matchless. The known unknown here is whether there is sufficient interest among the warring parties to freeze the conflict at this point. Russia seems to insist that any peace talks at this stage would have to recognize its control over not only Donbass but the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhia as well. There is also talk of the special military operations going far beyond its originally set parameters. Indeed, the Kharkiv front has become kinetic.

The Moscow press and TV have been reporting that preparations are under way to hold referendum in Kherson and Zaporizhia on their integration into Russia. On Wednesday, on the eve of the “feel-good” news regarding the grain deal, the White House spokesman John Kirby alleged that “Russia is beginning to roll out a version of what you could call an annexation playbook” and that there is “ample evidence in the intelligence and in the public domain” of Russia’s unfolding efforts, which include installing the ruble as the national currency in the areas it intends to annex, just as it did in Crimea.

One way of deciphering Kirby’s rhetoric is that it could be an opening shot? But the paradox is that the longer the war continues, the bigger becomes Russia’s scale of demands and by autumn/winter, Russian demands may well include Kharkiv — and, quite possibly, the Odessa Region as well.

‘Why Biden Failed’

On the other hand, the geopolitical reality is that Russia’s diplomatic space to maneuver is also expanding and possibly outstripping Washington. For instance, in the critical West Asian theater which has historically been important for the Western Cold War strategy against the former Soviet Union, President Biden tried to convince the nine Arab leaders he met in Jeddah last week that a reviving Cold War is coming to the Middle East and to sign up on the side of the US against Russia (and China), but “found no takers for his message, even when he added Iran to the equation,” to quote David Ottaway at the Wilson Center.

The public silence of those Arab leaders when it came to Biden’s talk of a Cold War or even the US and Israeli confrontation with Iran over its accelerating nuclear program was deafening. Again, on Tuesday, the ringing endorsement of Russia’s war in Ukraine by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during his meeting with President Putin went further than the Kremlin’s all other allies in backing Moscow in the Ukraine crisis,  signaling a much stronger alliance between Moscow and Tehran in the making.

Meanwhile, in a dramatic display of the reach of Russia’s influence in West Asia, upon his return from Tehran, Putin had a phone conversation with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud “with an emphasis on the expansion of mutually beneficial trade and economic ties” where they “examined developments on the global oil market”; “focused on the importance of further coordination within OPEC+”; and were “pleased to note that the OPEC+ member countries consistently fulfill their obligations in order to maintain the necessary balance and stability in the global energy market.”

Again, on Thursday, even as the Istanbul agreements on grain exports were signed, Putin signed a decree on the holding of the second Russia-Africa Summit and other events of the Russia-Africa format in Russia in 2023, while on Sunday, Lavrov set out on an Africa tour to follow up, starting with Egypt. No doubt, Russia’s grain supply chains with African countries across the continent being restored now, Lavrov will top up Moscow’s dynamic agenda with African continent with newer areas of cooperation with special attention to the situation around Ukraine.

The contrast between the America’s and Russia’s creativity on the diplomatic plane couldn’t be sharper. Biden promised a foreign policy in the interests of America’s middle class. What happened to it? Hasn’t the Biden presidency lost the plot? The sooner the Ukraine peace talks begin, the better chance for the Western card in the long and difficult negotiations ahead.

Wisdom lies in seizing the “feel good” over the grain deal to open negotiations with Russia. Or else, 2022 might be the last year Ukraine would have exported its grain through its own ports on the Black Sea. The non-Western world that has its priorities worked out on the development agenda and is struggling with recession and the pandemic has no interest in bandwagoning with the US’ new Cold War against Russia and China.

Surely, there must be some other way to regain America’s leadership role globally? Washington is not realizing how much it is in the US interests too to rethink the Ukraine strategy and Russia relations.

What Biden’s recent tours abroad underscore is that “the damage done by decades of misguided US geopolitics cannot be undone,” while on the other hand, “the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine will push weakened institutions of governance to the point of collapse… (and) the pillars of the US’s own liberal regime are under attack.” These are excerpts from a searing piece titled Why Biden Failed authored by Adam Tooze, the well-known British historian who is a professor at Columbia University and Director of the European Institute.

Prof. Tooze wrote last week: “Meanwhile, the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine will push weakened institutions of governance to the point of collapse. And as Washington seeks to cajole “democracies against autocracies” abroad, the pillars of the US’s own liberal regime are under attack. The overturning of Roe vs Wade enables the reactionary denial of reproductive rights across red-state America.

“The (US) Supreme Court is also set on demolishing the legal bases for key environmental regulations… If Biden’s plan was to stabilize US democracy with progressive politics –- an updated New Deal for the 21st century –- the conclusion now is that his presidency has failed.”