The disintegration of one of the few diplomatic breakthroughs to materialize since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year has added a new dimension to the war.
Russia’s withdrawal from the UN- and Turkish-brokered Black Sea grain deal last month — which permitted the safe export of Ukrainian foodstuff by ship — and subsequent bombardments of Ukrainian port cities have dragged the conflict into the maritime theater and risk expanding the war in other ways.
Among the most recent acts of Russian aggression was the firing of warning shots and boarding of a cargo ship in the Black Sea this week, following through on Moscow’s threat to treat civilian ships going to Ukraine as hostile. It is unclear how these clashes will affect Ukraine’s exporting capabilities. “But it reflects the rising tensions on the Black Sea, which Western analysts have warned could escalate into violence involving countries not directly involved in the war,” according to the New York Times. “Russia’s warning last month about treating third-country shipping as hostile raised fears of armed clashes, and since then, Ukraine’s increasingly robust naval drone force has launched several attacks on Russian warships.”
Both Washington and Kyiv expressed concern over the increased tensions. “We are, of course, concerned that Russia’s military may expand their targeting of Ukrainian grain facilities to include attacks against civilian ships in the Black Sea,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said on Monday.
“We call on the international community to take decisive action to prevent the Russian Federation’s actions that impede the peaceful passage of vessels through the Black Sea,” added the Ukrainian foreign ministry in a statement. The Ukrainian government alleges that Russian attacks on ports have destroyed more than 200,000 tons of grain. After months of declines, global food prices increased in July, following Russia’s withdrawal from the deal.
Early on Thursday morning, a civilian cargo ship appeared to sail out of Ukrainian waters safely for the first time since mid-July, in a move that President Volodymyr Zelensky called “an important step toward restoring the freedom of navigation in the Black Sea.” The Hong Kong-flagged ship left the port through a “humanitarian corridor” set up by Kyiv. Russia has not said whether it will respect the corridor.
Washington is reportedly working with Turkey, Kyiv, and others to develop a more sustainable alternative to increase export routes for Ukrainian grain.
“Western planning for alternatives to the Black Sea Grain Initiative shows how the U.S., Ukraine and European countries are preparing for a scenario in which Russia doesn’t rejoin the deal in time to move Ukraine’s summer and fall harvests,” reports the Wall Street Journal. “The U.S. is considering all potential options, including military solutions, to protect ships headed to and from Ukraine’s Danube ports, the Washington official said, but declined to give specifics on those options or say what countries would be involved in them.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The Biden administration announced early this week that it was sending $200 million in military aid to Ukraine. The package includes munitions for air defense systems, artillery ammunition, anti-armor capabilities, and more. The money represents the first tranche to come from the $6.2 billion in funds that were freed after the Pentagon reported an “accounting error” earlier this year, saying that they had overvalued some of the equipment that had been sent to Ukraine.
— Reporting from earlier this year indicated that Washington and its partners were planning on arming Ukraine to win back as much territory as it could during the counteroffensive, as a way to increase Kyiv’s position in eventual negotiations with Vladimir Putin. But, as serious gains prove elusive and the offensive appears to have largely stalled, the Wall Street Journal now reports that “military strategists and policy makers across the West are already starting to think about next year’s spring offensive. (...) Kyiv’s goal now is for its current offensive to culminate with sufficient gains to show Ukrainian citizens and backers in Washington, Berlin and elsewhere that their support hasn’t been misplaced—and should continue.” For some Republicans in Washington, the slow pace of the counteroffensive has changed their calculus on U.S. support for Ukraine. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), a member of the Freedom Caucus who is also the co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus and who has previously supported unconditional aid to Kyiv, said during a town hall on Tuesday that the offensive had “failed” and that “the time has come to realistically call for peace talks.”
— U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Lynne Tracy visited detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich for the third time this week. “Ambassador Tracy reported that Evan continues to appear in good health and remains strong, despite the circumstances,” the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said in a statement. According to Politico’s NatSec daily newsletter: “Gershkovich awaits a trial that experts suggest will be a sham with a predetermined outcome. The strong belief in Washington is that Russia is holding out for some kind of trade, especially after Biden said in July that he was open to a prisoner exchange.” Moscow has previously indicated that it could be open to discussions of a possible prisoner exchange involving Gershkovich so long as the talks remained private. “We have said that there have been certain contacts on the subject, but we don’t want them to be discussed in public,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in early July. “They must be carried out and continue in complete silence.” However, the Wall Street Journal now reports that Moscow has shown “scant interest” in such a swap, pushing Washington to explore other alternatives.
— Stian Jenssen, chief of staff to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, caused a minor quarrel this week when he suggested that Ukraine ceding some territory in exchange for NATO membership “could be a possible solution" to the war. Zelensky advisor Mykhailo Podolyak responded on Twitter, calling the idea “ridiculous” and arguing that such a proposal would amount to “deliberately choosing the defeat of democracy.”
The back-and-forth led to apologies and clarifications from both NATO and Jenssen himself. A spokesperson for the alliance put out a statement saying, "We will continue to support Ukraine as long as necessary, and we are committed to achieving a just and lasting peace. The position of the Alliance is clear and has not changed,” while the chief of staff called his statement “part of a larger discussion about possible future scenarios in Ukraine” and “a mistake.” He elaborated, “If, and I emphasized if, you get to the point where you can negotiate, the military situation on the ground will be absolutely central, and will have a decisive influence on how a possible outcome of this war will look."
— Biden administration officials are not overly concerned over recent Ukrainian efforts to “bring the war back to Russia,” according to Julia Ioffe. A recent private conversation with a State Department official about drone strikes in Moscow and attacks on Russian bridges to Crimea was “ indicative of Washington’s diminished concern that Putin might actually press the nuclear button, which peaked last fall when Kherson fell back into Ukrainian hands,” Ioffe writes in Puck. As Ioffe notes, the Biden administration has consistently crossed lines that they had previously thought would cause Putin to escalate the war, and that trend is apparently bound to continue. “As for that escalation mantra that was all the rage in 2022,” she writes “well, said the State Department official, ‘We’re always mindful of escalation risks, but perhaps they’ve been overblown, at least so far.’”
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press briefing, spokesman Vedant Patel was asked about the prospects of the administration’s request for more aid to Ukraine getting approved by Congress. “Our commitment to our Ukrainian partners is unwavering, and what I can say about Congress is that throughout the entirety of this war, we have seen support from our Ukrainian partners, both bicamerally as well as in a bipartisan fashion, and we’re going to continue to engage with Congress on this supplemental,” Patel responded. “We believe that it is an important step for us to not just continue to support our Ukrainian partners as they defend their territorial integrity, but also there’s important avenues for addressing food security challenges, energy infrastructure challenges, and things of that nature. “
Blaise Malley is a reporter for Responsible Statecraft. He is a former associate editor at The National Interest and reporter-researcher at The New Republic. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, The American Prospect, The American Conservative, and elsewhere.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.