In Other News – How the World Has Changed in the 6 Months Since Russia Invaded the Ukrained – 8/25/2022

August 25, 2022

How the World has Changed in the six months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. The strategic positioning of Ukraine has evolved from a seemingly indefensible target, to admirable resistor in the first months of the assault, to besieged victim of a long war in the East and South, to a clever asymmetrical opponent with its focus on retaking portions of Kherson and targeting strategic military installations in Crimea, to potentially a successful defender. But in this short time period, the geostrategic landscape of Europe and the West has also changed. An expanding NATO and other Western allies are sharply focused and galvanized regarding the security threat that Russia poses and other territorially aggressive autocratic states. The required shift from Russian energy sources, and carbon-based fuels more generally, is now more acutely understood and the irreversible divestment from Russia has taken on a new urgency. Widespread sanctions are having a punishing effect on the Russian economy and there is unease among Russia’s elite.

As Ukraine celebrates its flag day and 31 years of independence, the region is on tenterhooks, as most pertinently illustrated by the drama and instability at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, but also with the credible prospect of Russian targeted assaults to pointedly punish Ukraine for the audacity of asserting independence. On the battlefield though, much is stalemated, and both sides are preparing for a long cold winter in the trenches. Europe is frantically stockpiling fuel, and pundits are speculating on whether a tough winter and a series of elections could weaken Western resolve (the likely posture of the new Italian government is the first sign of this). Still, thanks in large part to Turkey, Ukrainian grain is flowing from its ports, and there is hope that the U.N. might be able to intervene to diminish tensions and shelling in Zaporizhzhia. Ukraine, with its previously underestimated intelligence capabilities, new Western armaments and training, and recent strategic strikes behind enemy lines, is taking a real initiative to perhaps change the dynamic even before the winter sets in. As Autumn approaches, there may be more in store in the coming weeks than is presently apparent.

The downstream effects of the war continues to reverberate across the world, whether it be Russia seeking to use Iran as an exporter as a means to circumvent sanctions, the successful, if controversial, outreach by the US to increase Saudi oil production, the boon for UAE as sanctioned Oligarchs flock to its ports, the specific attention paid to Taiwan and the presence of American politicians on the island, or heightened tension on the Kosovo-Serbia border. Although Turkey’s tenuous position as chief negotiator in the conflict is now in question following its diplomatic spat with Russia over Ankara’s ambitions in northern Syria. In many respects, the war in Ukraine is an inflection point that has prompted or accelerated profound realignments, even as the war’s outcome remains uncertain.

In Other News – Turkey Navigates and Shapes a New Geopolitical Order – 8/18/2022

August 18, 2022

As the war in Ukraine continues, Turkey is both navigating, and shaping, a new geopolitical order. Earlier today, UN Secretary General Guterres and Turkish President Erdogan met in western Ukraine with President Zelenskyy to discuss the ongoing economic and security impact of the war. It will be Erdogan’s first visit to Ukraine since February, and he’ll be looking for ways to increase and secure Ukrainian grain exports from Black Sea ports after initial agreements were signed in Istanbul in late July. Erdogan, who previously met with Putin in southern Russia on the same issues, is in a unique position to serve as a regional broker. Notably, about one year ago we saw how Turkey was also vying to play mediator in Kabul, and although Qatar was ultimately better positioned for the role, Turkey has since maintained global relevance as the only NATO member with a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.

Turkey is now drawing upon this experience to calibrate its relationships with NATO, Russia, and associated allies. These relationships are often quite transactional, and Erdogan likely assumes that by making himself an indispensable go-between in Ukraine he might gain greater leeway to purchase Russian military equipment without sanctions and to act on his own accord in Syria. So far, Erdogan is doing a decent job of the balancing act, trying to appease the West by acting as a mediator and equipping Ukraine’s army with drones, while simultaneously expanding trade with Russia. But it’s a difficult position to maintain, and his diplomatic policies will be heavily informed by domestic concerns.

Indeed, while Erdogan is guided by numerous priorities, including limiting refugees and upholding his role as a global statesman, he’s really trying to pump up the Turkish economy before next year’s elections. Just today, in a move derided by many financial analysts, Turkey’s central bank surprisingly cut the benchmark rate despite soaring inflation. Since 2021, Turkey has been suffering from an ongoing currency crisis that’s led to financial instability, and Ankara has recently looked to Russia for economic relief. There’s been an uptick in Turkish-Russian trade since February, and five Turkish banks are even reportedly adopting Russia’s Mir payments system. European countries also recognize Turkey’s role as an export base for sending non-sanctioned goods to Russia, a position that forces Ankara to balance potential economic gain with the risk of facilitating sanctions evasion.

But Turkey isn’t limiting its economic outreach to Russia. In the past few months Erdogan has made overtures to Saudi and the UAE, and this week Ankara reestablished critical diplomatic relations with Israel for the first time in four years. Both Tel Aviv and Ankara expressed a mutual desire to increase economic ties, but they likely also recognize the strength in unity as states in proximity to Russia or Russian forces. And while international attention has been understandably focused on Putin’s deepening relationship with China, Turkey is also looking further east and is reportedly pursuing closer relations with Beijing and regional alliances like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Indeed, Turkey’s relationship with China has been evolving over the past several years and could serve to offer both Beijing and Ankara leverage on the global stage regardless of what happens next in Ukraine.

In Other News – Explosions in Crimea Shake Russia’s Confidence – 8/11/2022

August 11, 2022

Explosions in annexed Crimea shake Russia’s confidence, hint at a broader Ukrainian counteroffensive. Satellite imagery from earlier this week revealed that multiple Russian warplanes stationed at the Saki airbase in Crimea were damaged or destroyed on Tuesday. Moscow is still trying to get its story straight on what happened– the Russian defense ministry claimed that the airbase explosions were caused by detonated aviation ammunition, while state propagandists furiously spouted-off that Russians are under attack by Ukraine. Kyiv has not officially claimed responsibility for the destruction of the Russian planes, but a senior Ukrainian Ministry of Defense official confirmed Kyiv’s role in the attack to the media and further indicated that more operations of a similar nature are in the works. President Zelenskyy also publicly and emphatically restated the goal of liberating Crimea from Russian control.

If Ukraine was indeed responsible for the explosions, which took place at a notable distance from Ukrainian lines, the attack would be the first significant attack in Crimea since the onset of the war. It would also mark the single biggest day of Russian air force losses since February. Based on the range of the attacks, there’s active speculation about the nature of the attack, be it the use of advanced weaponry or the handiwork of Ukrainian special forces. Regardless of the specific mechanism, if Crimea is now deemed as susceptible to attack, Russia will need to reallocate resources to protect its forces in the area and might have to pull from its frontlines. It also might choose to move planes out of the area to less desirable air bases farther away.

Further, in addition to causing logistical woes for Moscow, the explosions likely jolted any sense of security held by Russian air force members. Social media images depicting Russians who were vacationing in Crimea scrambling to avoid the explosions could also have a psychological impact on the Russian populace. Adding to the uncertainty, this week there were also unconfirmed social media reports regarding explosions at a Belarusian military airbase used by Moscow and close to the Ukrainian border. The Ministry of Defense of Belarus dismissed the reports and said that a car engine had caught fire at the location, but Zelenskyy’s advisor remarked that Russians shouldn’t feel safe in either Crimea or occupied Belarus, noting that these so-called technical incidents should serve as a warning.

For its part, Ukraine has pledged to force Russian troops out of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the coming weeks via an increased counteroffensive. Already, Ukrainian forces are targeting military bases and ammunition hubs around Kherson and in the wider Kherson province, including a possible attack on a strategic road and rail link earlier this week. It’s still uncertain if these attacks will allow Ukraine to make any territorial advances in the region, but time is certainly of the essence. Ukrainian officials have remarked that the longer Ukrainians are stuck under Russian occupation, the greater the risk of losing them, and officials further believe that Russia will try to hold illegal referendums in the captured areas in early September.

In Other News – Yemen Truce, Ukraine Grain Shipment and Counteroffensives – 8/4/2022

August 4, 2022

Yemen Truce Extended

The Yemeni government and Houthi rebels agreed to another two-month extension of a truce first agreed upon in April and extended in June. This series of deals has been the first significant cessation in the seven-year conflict that has killed more than 150,000 people and has displaced millions.

The original truce called on the groups to halt military operations as well as allow fuel shipments into the country’s main Red Sea port controlled by the Houthis, provide weekly commercial flights to and from Yemen’s primary international airport, and further talks on opening roads to the government-controlled areas such as Taiz and other cities. The new truce extension includes commitments by both parties to intensify negotiations on reaching an expanded agreement. Experts suggest that cross pressure on all parties has helped create the environment for the truce. Iran, seeking to resurrect a deal with the U.S. on its nuclear ambitions, has pushed its Houthi allies to the bargaining table while the anti-Houthi coalition has seen its leader, Saudi Arabia, suggest that it wants to exit the conflict.

Despite the progress, all sides have advised caution on the idea that this would lead to a permanent peace. While the general parameters of the truce have held, outside monitors counted more than 1,800 violations including shelling and drone strikes since April. Analysts note that the Houthi’s have continued to recruit during the cease-fire and are prepared to continue military operations should it fail. Houthi forces have also been slow in opening roads to the besieged city of Taiz. Factions within the coalition are themselves divided over whether south Yemen, their current power base, should secede entirely. While the deal has allowed relief for some of the Yemeni population, significant progress is still needed on a comprehensive political settlement. Success will require continued attention to problems affecting the Yemeni people while also creating a structure for long term agreement.

First Ukrainian Grain Shipment

The first Ukrainian shipment of grain since the Russian invasion has proceeded under a deal to resume the country’s agricultural exports. The deal, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, may provide some relief for global food shortages and subsequent price surges while also benefitting Ukraine’s beleaguered economy.

The vessel, carrying 26,000 tons of Ukrainian corn, left Odessa on Monday and sailed to Turkey where it was inspected by officials from Ukraine, Russia, and the U.N. The July 22nd agreement, which is initially set to last 120 days, allows Ukraine to resume grain exports which could provide at least $1 billion in revenue. In the last seven years, the country has averaged more than 40 million tons of grain exports annually. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ukraine’s agricultural exports in 2021 “totaled $27.8 billion accounting for 41 percent of the country’s $68 billion in overall exports.” Ukraine reportedly has 17 more vessels, which had been loaded prior to the invasion, ready to follow.

Questions remain about how much of its harvest Ukraine will be able to successfully export. Prior to the invasion, the country could export 6 million tons of grain per month. Under the current agreement, Ukraine can send three shipments per day, but to reach the previous level, the country would need each of those vessels to carry 60,000 tons or more than two times the initial shipment. The U.S. Institute of Peace noted that the current rate of transport is insufficient for the 20 million tons of grain the country has ready for export. Still, any increased supply to the global market will help the millions of people facing hunger, including Syrian refugees in Lebanon where the first shipment will arrive.

Counteroffensive in Southern Ukraine

Movements by Ukrainian and Russian forces suggests an imminent collision of forces in southern Ukraine. Russia appears to be amassing units near the city of Kherson where Ukraine’s counteroffensives, empowered with new weapons from Western allies, have recaptured territory and threaten Russia’s hold on southeastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s efforts in the region of Kherson, a provincial capital and a strategically important city, have yielded steady success, moving closer to retaking the city itself. Ukraine’s access to long range artillery, in the form of High Mobility Artillery Rock Systems, has given it the ability to hit Russian ammunition deports and command posts, depleting Russian forces and pushing supply lines further from the front. Ukraine has successfully used artillery to destroy bridges and railways that Russia needs to supply its forces in Kherson. Control of Kherson would allow Ukraine to push Russia back across the Dnipro River, which splits the country in two.

Recapturing Kherson and the surrounding region could be a turning point for Ukraine. While it holds symbolic value as the first major city to fall in the invasion, Kherson also provides significant strategic benefit. Ukrainian control of Kherson would deny Russia its long-held goal of a land bridge to Crimea while simultaneously cutting off Crimea from needed power plants and water reservoirs. Ukraine would also regain access to significant agricultural and industrial resources in the region. Holding Kherson would also allow Ukraine to more easily defend the port of Odessa, where grain shipments have recently resumed. As an added benefit, Ukrainian control of Kherson also carries an implicit threat to Russian-held Crimea. “The threat of the transfer of the war to the territory of Crimea is already becoming a reality for them,” a Ukrainian military official said Monday.