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Diplomacy Watch: Will Russia follow through on Black Sea threats?

Diplomacy Watch: Will Russia follow through on Black Sea threats?

Tensions are gripping the region as Ukraine begins to allow free passage from its ports past the grain blockade.

Europe

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. “

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