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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


Updated: Aug 6, 2023

I’ve been away on a summer holiday and somewhat detached from the news. Still, I did skim through a newspaper each morning and there was plenty to write about before I went away. I shall use this post as a way of drawing together a few loose thoughts on where things stand in Ukraine.

In general, before I went away, I was already feeling – and it is a feeling, a hunch rather than a rational analysis – that the Russo-Ukrainian war is at a prospective turning point. This means that Ukraine’s backers, if they want it to recover its territory and push back the Russian forces, really need to step up their support.

The war situation

For sure, Ukraine continues to have successes to report from the frontlines. A second attack on the Kerch Bridge, as well as further drone attacks on Moscow last week and sea-drone attacks on Russian naval ships in the Black Sea on each of the past two nights, have all exposed Russian vulnerabilities. The Russian navy’s Olenegorsky Gornyak ship was towed back into port, visibly listing, yesterday morning; while the tanker hit overnight suffered engine room damage according to Russian officials.

But these must be considered in the context of admissions that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is having less success than hoped and that Russia is not repeating many of its military failures early in the war; its forces are dug into defensive positions and holding quite firm. The ‘spring’ counteroffensive had morphed into a summer counteroffensive before it began, and now there is talk of needing to achieve some of its goals before the onset of winter.

No doubt awareness of Ukraine’s reduced effectiveness in fighting led the United States to supply it with cluster munitions, despite the discomfort this caused NATO allies (most of whom are signatories of the convention prohibiting their use). Whether or not these will be sufficient to give Ukraine the initiative is doubtful because its failure to breach Russian defensive lines is not really about its weapons, although supplies of other weaponry and ammunition do appear to be insufficient to meet Ukraine’s needs.

I should note here that I am not claiming Russia’s military is suddenly greatly improved. The fact that it is in the process of raising the conscription age shows it needs more fighters, and it is not as if Russia is suddenly making big territorial gains. Rather that it is holding the Ukrainian territory it has captured. Analysts in the media have repeatedly pointed out that defence has the advantage over offence in the war; Russia has laid minefields several kilometres’ deep for defence of territory it holds (approximately 20% of Ukraine).

Moreover, Russia is still dealing with the fallout of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny in late June. That shook the Kremlin and some reports have suggested air defences have been diverted from Ukraine to protect Moscow as a result of the drone attacks (I am not sure how credible those claims are).

Russia and Africa

The mutineer Prigozhin, incidentally, seems to be spending more time in St Petersburg than Belarus. When that city hosted the second Russia-Africa summit, he was there meeting African leaders on the margins of the event. That brings me to one of the biggest issues of recent weeks.

Russia’s decision to pull out of the grain deal continues to generate a lot of concern. The deal, which allowed ships carrying grain safe passage out of Ukrainian ports, was vital for global food security since Ukraine is one of the world’s leading grain exporters. Originally agreed last summer, it had been extended twice. Russia pulled out because its demands for the easing sanctions on its agricultural exports were rejected. One would instinctively think that Russia’s withdrawal from the agreement, which in effect means a blockade on Ukraine’s ports, harms its reputation in Africa, whose countries traditionally receive a large volume of grain from Ukraine. About a third of their grain if the media reports I’ve read are accurate. More than that, Russia has been bombing stored grain in the ports, with Odesa particularly hard hit.

But that seventeen leaders of African states still went to St Petersburg is interesting. The western media emphasised how many fewer it was than the first such summit, but seventeen is still significant. South Africa’s president expressed gratitude that Russia ‘conducts its relationship with Africa with a great deal of respect and recognition of states’ sovereignty.’ Several key states, such as Nigeria, decided against attending but the inconvenient fact for western leaders is that many in Africa (by no means all!) accept Russia’s arguments about the Ukraine war, and also that western sanctions on Russia are unfair or harming food security.

Clearly a lot was happening while I was on holiday. Then, as I rested by the swimming pool, I couldn’t miss reading about the coup in Niger. Photos of supportive crowds in Niamey showed people waving Russian flags; another reminder that many on the continent do not view Russia as the ‘baddie’ it is portrayed as in most western media.

There were contradictory statements from Russia. I’m pretty sure I saw that Dmitry Medvedev said something about Russia not having any interest in interfering or taking sides. But do we need to listen to Medvedev these days? His vitriol towards the west, constant menacing remarks about using nuclear weapons, seem to reflect nothing more than a political figure who has lost all his status in Russia. Widespread rumours that he has succumbed to alcoholism seem to be believed by the most sober of Russia analysts.

Prigozhin – he again, formally no one in the political system though he may be! – described the coup as ‘a battle by the people of Niger against their colonisers’. Given how considerable (if not always welcome to the Kremlin) his services have been during the Russo-Ukrainian war, and his role in spreading disinformation over the years through his ‘troll farm’ (the now defunct Internet Research Agency), he cannot entirely be ignored.

There is indeed uncertainty about what his mercenaries will do in the future. Many of the mercenary fighters involved in the June mutiny have relocated to Belarus – perhaps as many as five thousand – and they continue to be active across Africa. They engage in various other shenanigans: taunting Poland with talk of an ‘excursion’ there (in Lukashenka’s telling) and rumours of designs on seizing the Suwalki Gap – the corridor along the Polish-Lithuanian border, connecting Belarus and Kaliningrad. (Though, in my opinion, the rumours are a little far-fetched.)

But it seems Russia isn’t likely to make a dramatic entry into the Niger situation. Niger’s neighbours are unhappy with the coup and ECOWAS has pledged to consider military intervention if the constitutional president is not released from capture and reinstated. So perhaps there is no story in this as far as Russia is concerned.

Turning point?

A question no one backing Ukraine wants to ask. Is the tide turning in Russia’s favour? Or is Ukraine, despite the tough phase it is currently in, on the verge of a more emphatic triumph? The evidence in the public domain doesn’t really lead either way and suggests a finely-balanced (precarious?) situation – Russia is claiming to have captured a pocket of territory today but as I write that information is not verified – and it’s better to say the risk now is of a prolonged stalemate. As I’ve written more than once on this blog, I am acutely aware how quickly fortunes can change in war. It’s boring but I will keep saying it.

Ukraine needs more support if it is to progress in driving out Russian forces, that is clear, and I expect it needs more personnel too. And if it is not provided now there is another issue looming on the horizon. As I walked from pool to bar last week, I could not help but see a familiar face on the television screen in the hotel even if I couldn’t make much sense of the Portuguese subtitles. Donald Trump is dominating the news again.

If he were to be re-elected as president next year, there will be questions about US support. I have argued that these are sometimes overstated: his administration was hardly pro-Russia during his previous stint in the role despite his evident admiration for Vladimir Putin. But support for the war in Ukraine is a divisive issue among the US electorate, for whom the war is far away, and the volume of US military support for Ukraine risks becoming a key election campaign issue. A new CNN poll finds a majority (55%) of Americans against the allocation of extra funds to Ukraine.

In that context, recent ‘spats’ about Ukrainian gratitude (Ben Wallace’s ‘we’re not Amazon’ soundbite and a similar remark by a Polish politician) might be heard more frequently from Americans. The real issue is that if NATO member states want Ukraine to push back Russian forces, they need to be supplying more missile systems urgently – and Europe can’t depend on the US. Key European states will need to bear the brunt of responsibility.

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