In the ongoing war in Ukraine, Russia has occupied part of the country extending from the areas marked by the major cities of Kharkiv in the north, to Kherson in the south, or about 22% of the country. On the waterfront, Ukraine has lost the Sea of Azov and most of its Black Sea coast to Russia, which can now control Ukraine’s maritime outlet.
Ukraine, armed with weapons provided by the West, is not giving up and is leading a counter-offensive in several areas.
The Russian strikes caused dozens of civilian deaths and destroyed infrastructure. After a number of incidents that would qualify as clear cases of war crimes, most recently 50 Ukrainian POWs, mostly members of the Azov Brigade, died at Olenivka POW camp.
The camp is controlled by the breakaway Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic and Russia has claimed the camp was hit by Ukrainian missiles. Ukraine, meanwhile, claims it was arson committed by Russia to destroy evidence of terrible misconduct and torture. On a last-minute development note, the Supreme Court of Russia has designated the Azov Regiment as a terrorist organization, meaning its members are no longer considered prisoners of war but terrorists.
Russia’s strategic goal in Ukraine varies from establishing itself permanently in the so-called “Russian majority areas” to “helping the Ukrainian people get rid of an unacceptable regime”, as stated by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov at the Arab League summit in Cairo. (Recall that Russia is unreservedly critical of countries that support regime change in Syria, but sees no harm in changing the elected president and government in Ukraine.)
The war is also fierce on the economic front and the shock waves across the world are felt especially in terms of food and energy security.
The West has sanctioned Russia for invading Ukraine and Russia is responding using mostly grain and energy. Considerable efforts are being made on all sides to mitigate the effects and find alternatives.
On the food security side, as we now know, Ukraine and Russia are among the largest grain producers and exporters in the world. Ukrainian grain exports have been restricted due to the closure of the Black Sea. Ukraine sends what it can through other channels, but that’s only a small fraction of what it used to do or what it needs to export.
On the other hand, even though the sanctions against Russia do not include agricultural products, its exports are also affected due to higher insurance rates and payment difficulties.
The grain deal signed in Istanbul on July 22 has raised hopes for relief. The Joint Coordination Center, which will pilot and control the operation, was inaugurated on July 27, still in Istanbul. Enforcement mechanisms covering departure from Ukrainian ports, safe passage and inspection are in place.
The first vessel, 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, a country identified by the World Bank as facing one of the worst financial crises since the mid-19th century.
If the test voyage is successful, other grain-laden ships will follow.
On the energy security side, the first decision was taken on February 22, when Germany suspended the Nord Stream 2 project in response to Moscow’s recognition of two breakaway regions in Ukraine.
More recently, Gazprom reduced gas deliveries through the Nord Stream pipeline to 20% of its capacity and also stopped supplying gas to Latvia. Russia had already halted gas deliveries to Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Poland, citing technical flaws or the countries’ refusal to proceed under new ruble payment rules.
On the diplomatic front, the scene is also activated.
Russian Lavrov has traveled to 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 were economic cooperation and how to deal with several issues, including sanctions.
On July 26, Iranian Economy Minister Ehsan Khandouzi said that Iran and Russia would conduct their economic and trade transactions not in dollars but in roubles. It remains to be seen how (or rather if) these declarations will be implemented.
Even though the United States and Russia face each other on opposite sides of the war, their foreign ministers had a telephone conversation on July 29. It was their first since Russia invaded Ukraine. The reports said that among the issues they discussed were the implementation of the grain deal and the prisoner exchange. Sharp disagreements would have remained on the rest of the issues.
Turkey is the only country in the western camp that has been able to continue talking to the Russians and with some results as well.
Presidents Erdogan and Putin met on Friday in Sochi. It was the first visit by the leader of a NATO member country to Russia since the start of the war.
Erdogan may be using his relationship with Putin to remind the West of Turkey’s strategic importance and its role as a useful mediator/facilitator. The grain agreement is a concrete example.
Ukraine was the first item on the agenda for discussion. Some have speculated on the possibility of a new initiative, this time in the field of energy for example. Nothing is impossible in international relations, but I believe that is too optimistic an expectation, at least at this stage.
Syria was again the other major issue that was discussed in Sochi. Russia, 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 could strive to bring Turkey and Bashar Assad’s regime closer together in a way that avoids a military operation and serves its own strategic interests.
A recent statement by the Turkish President hinted that Turkish drones, which have proven to be very effective in action in several theaters of conflict, including Ukraine, would be on the agenda. Putin reportedly offered Erdogan to build a drone production facility in Russia.
It is unclear if there is any serious credibility to this news. If so, it will be a new addition to a list of items of strategic cooperation between the two countries, including the purchase of the S-400 air defense system, the construction of a nuclear reactor and pipelines carrying Russian gas to Turkey and Europe. .
Many in the West and in Turkey believe that maintaining relations with Russia can have its benefits, but going too far could lead to problems on several fronts.