Editor’s Note: Vladimir Putin’s murderous war of aggression in Ukraine is very fluid, violent, and frequently startling. NPI will try to err on the side of caution when evidence behind claims or statements are lacking.
It’s easy to believe, given how most of the media portrays Putin’s war of aggression against the people of Ukraine, that military activity alone will decide its outcome. While combat will definitely have an effect, there are other factors that may be as important, if not more so.
When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, Russian warships attacked Ukrainian Black Sea ports such as Odessa.
Ukraine responded with the deployment of nautical mines. Both actions, taken together, meant that Ukrainian Black Sea ports couldn’t be used to export Ukrainian grain. While Ukraine has attempted to make use of rail lines and the Danube River as alternatives, both have had their share of complications.
On July 22nd, The United Nations and Turkey facilitated a deal between Russia and Ukraine, the Black Sea Grain Initiative, to allow both sides to export grain and fertilizer through both nations’ Black Sea commercial ports without incident, renewable every 120 days. Inspections would ensure that weapons and ammunition would not be imported into Ukraine and that Ukrainian grain confiscated by the Russians as a result of its invasion would not be exported.
It also required that insurance underwriters and shipping companies felt confident that they considered the deal viable enough in which to participate.
Russian missiles struck Odessa’s port a day after signing the agreement.
Ukraine has accused Russia of smuggling Ukrainian grain by various means, but save for one Russian vessel being held for a time at a Turkish port, no grain on Russian ships in the Black Sea has been both halted and confiscated.
Russia has also been accused of delaying the passage of ships fulfilling Ukrainian contracts such that, as of October 21st, according to the Ukrainian government, there were 150 ships queued up and waiting to initiate their passage through Russian-controlled waters. In spite of all this, over nine million tons of Ukrainian grain have been successfully transported out of the Black Sea.
Early in the morning of October 29th, there was an attack on Russian naval vessels in the Crimean port of Sevastopol that may have damaged at least three Russian Navy vessels, including the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship, the Admiral Makarov. Russia disagreed with the level of damage reported by the western news media, but announced on the same day that “The Russian side cannot guarantee the safety of civilian dry cargo ships participating in the ‘Black Sea initiative’ and suspends its implementation from today on indefinite period.”
Grain, cooking oil and fertilizer from both Ukraine and Russia are essential to most of the Middle East, East Africa and South Asia in particular.
At least 25% of wheat exports in Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan have in the past come from Ukraine. East Africa through Bangladesh have dealt with an arc of a severe locust infestation since 2019, which has damaged their ability to raise food within their own nations, intensifying the need for food imports.
A second locust infestation struck the Eastern Cape of South Africa in May of of this year. A very hot and dry summer in southern Europe this year has resulted in the worst recorded drought in the last five centuries.
Denying Ukraine hard currency from grain exports is one of the few ways Russia can effectively harm Ukraine disproportionately compared to any “blowback” on Russia that isn’t already happening due to existing trade sanctions against it.
While Turkey, United Nations and, to a lesser extent, the European Union try to bring Russia back into the Black Sea Grain Initiative, as of October 31, Turkish naval vessels have started escorting ships with Ukrainian contracts out of the
Russia had anticipated being able to convince the nations of the European Union to not get involved in the attempted invasion of Ukraine, then later forcing them to demand that Ukraine reach a negotiated settlement with Russia, due to its reliance on Russian petroleum gas.
In response to such threats and Russia slowly reducing access to its petroleum gas over time, the European Union has been working on renewables, demand reduction and making use of alternative importers, such as the United States, Qatar, west Africa, Norway, Algeria and Azerbaijan. But we really won’t know what’s working and what’s not until the winter arrives in full force.
On October 27th, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech which emphasized that Russia was a defender of a “rising nations within a multi-polar world” and of traditional Christian values, that the West was losing its dominance and “quickly becoming a minority on the world stage,” and that the United States could end the war quickly by demanding that Ukraine seek a peaceful settlement.
Putin’s comments were in large part for the Global South, and while some don’t entirely find it be as effective as it has been vaunted to be, it has been around for decades and has a reach that shouldn’t be simply ignored.
While leaders such as President Emmanuel Macron have attempted to counter such messaging, resentment and dependency in various forms still exist.
Especially in western Africa, there is still much resentment over the 2011 NATO attack and swift withdrawal from Libya, which resulted in the death of Muammar el-Gadaffi and the downfall of his government.
It also resulted a bloody civil war and, eventually, a refuge for Islamist forces that have traversed to and terrorized civilians in northern Nigeria, Chad, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. And before that, there was the United States’ invasion of Iraq, which was in contravention of international law.
Two wrongs don’t make a right, but there is still skepticism that the United States only cares about international law when it suits them.
Further, while Ukraine has been effective at acquiring support from the United States and NATO, they haven’t used their existing trade relationships with the Global South to provide effective counter-messaging to Russian claims.
They also have neglected portraying their economic status before the war as a “cousin” who has suffered from many of the same problems the nations of the Global South endure, or that they are now a victim of Russian imperialism, akin to the Global South’s suffering under Western imperialism.
Economically, much of the Global South needs Russian grain, food oils and fertilizer as they do such products from Ukraine.
India still relies on Russia for most of their arms sales, and as an ally in their corner in their present disagreements with China.
Many nations haven’t embraced the existing Russian sanctions, though many steer clear of directly violating them. For example, within Latin America, because the present trade sanctions against Russia were not validated or approved by the United Nations, Mexico and Brazil have spoken out against them and the Bahamas is the only Organization of American States member outside of the United States that has approved of them publicly.
General Mud and General Winter
The muddy season in Ukraine, Bealrus and western Russia, known in Ukrainian as Bezdorizhzhya and in Russian as Rrasputitsa, slowed down the Russian advance into Ukraine during the spring of this year, forcing much of its attacks around viable roads. It could do the same and slow down the Ukrainian advance into the Kherson Oblast in the southwest and the Luhansk oblast in the southeast.
But a greater concern is the damp cold that accompanies it. The Russian military has been firing missiles into Ukrainian civilian infrastructure time and again in hopes that a lack of power, potable water or access to basic hygiene over time will cause Ukrainian civilians to sue for peace (though that may not happen).
That same Russian military has been sending poorly to not at all trained and equipped troops from its most recent mobilization into the front lines of battle. While there may be hopes of a “spirit of Smolensk” among the Russian officer corps, where both in 1812 and 1941 invaders were delayed long enough by continuously sending whoever was available to battle for the tables to turn, the fact is that whoever survives among these newly mobilized conscripts will spread fear as they retreat — and fear is hard to stop once it has enough momentum.
General Winter, with snow and greater cold, could exacerbate all of these dynamics further.
The midterm elections in the United States
While Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy backed away from initial comments that funding for Ukraine might be reduced or withdrawn if the Republicans gain a majority in Congress this November, Republicans most beholden to Donald Trump for their political futures have made it clear that they will follow his direction if he continues to state that Ukraine’s future aid should be dependent on their willingness to come to the negotiation table.
If the Republicans secure majorities in the House or Senate, the result could be a stalled Ukrainian military and time that President Putin needs to force an end to the war on his terms, while he rebuilds for the next phase of the conflict.
During the same October 27th speech, President Putin noted that he himself had directed that NATO and American officials be told of Ukraine’s plans to build and use a “dirty bomb” — a device that uses conventional high explosives to spread radioactive material into the surrounding area.
Members of the European Union, NATO and the United States have declared such comments to be transparently false statements, but the greater concern is that the Russians might create an incident at the occupied commercial nuclear plant at Zaporizhzhia or make use of nuclear material at the plant to detonate such a device and blame it on the Ukrainians.
How the West and neutral parties to the conflict would respond to either option isn’t certain, but it would likely be seen as nothing less than a catastrophe with an overwhelming response by NATO and the European Union.