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As the Ukraine war drags on, a grain export deal could be a sign of hope

Many obstacles stand in the way of negotiated peace in Ukraine but shoots of diplomatic pragmatism may be emerging

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
20 August 2022, 12.00am
Russia and Ukraine signed a deal to free up grain exports from Ukrainian ports
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UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

Six months ago, Poland’s air force included large numbers of obsolete Soviet-era planes. But it is now furiously re-arming and has just signed a major arms deal with South Korea.

The US$14.5bn deal with Poland includes 1,000 K2 main battle tanks, nearly 700 self-propelled howitzers and 48 FA-50 combat aircraft. It’s just one example of the rapid expansion of re-arming now under way across Europe. As Sean Howard put it recently, making a killing is a lot easier than making peace. It is certainly far more profitable, at least in the short term, even if almost everyone will lose in the long term.

The war in Ukraine, meanwhile, drags on with no end in sight as it approaches six months of killing and destruction. A violent stalemate has persisted for five of those six months, sometimes with Russia appearing in the ascendant but more recently Ukraine edging ahead. Neither can win and neither can lose. NATO will ensure that Ukraine is sufficiently well-armed to resist sudden Russian advances, but if Russia faces defeat it can threaten nuclear escalation.

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Since early July, when Russian forces were still on the offensive, the transfer of new Western weapons to Ukraine has enabled its army to take the initiative. It is now combining accurate long-range rocket attacks with the greater use of special forces and irregulars operating behind Russian lines, especially in Crimea.

Even so, while Volodymyr Zelenskyi is now speaking openly of Ukraine reclaiming the whole of the Crimea from Russia, seasoned diplomats see this as principally for home consumption. If a deal was possible, then Ukraine would almost certainly be prepared to negotiate over territory, post-war governance and many other issues, and there is plenty of expert advice around on how to approach a negotiated settlement.

There are, though, many obstacles to a negotiated peace, three of which stand out.

One is Putin and his power group, which remains fixated on victory. They may no longer see much prospect of an immediate takeover of the Kyiv government, even if that remains the ultimate aim, but controlling much of Russian-speaking Ukraine in Crimea and Donbas is still the intention.

There is also little doubt that Putin himself remains committed to the grand vision of a greater Eurasia with Russia at the head. This exercise in ethno-nationalism with decided neo-Fascist and Tsarist undertones is his counter to Western hegemony, especially the global power of the United States.

Then there is the second obstacle. The hawks in the West, and especially in the United States, see the war as an extraordinary opportunity to cripple the Russian economy for a generation, freeing Washington to face up to its real enemy – China. There are shades here of the hawkish attitudes of the influential John Birch Society and other right-wing groups in the US back at the height of the Cold War era in the early 1980s. Spending the Soviets into an early grave was the mantra, and it came close to becoming the reality with the economic collapse of the early 1990s.

It is always possible that thoughtful analysts and perhaps even one or two political leaders will begin to question the consequences of the war

That economic crisis and the contempt with which a failing Russia was treated by the West has greatly helped Putin, especially with older Russians, but this is quietly forgotten as the war provides a new opportunity for US hawks to embrace old approaches. Their hope is to see it lasting at least a couple of years, with enough Western military support for Ukraine to wear down Russian forces. The next step may well be to ensure that Kyiv gets F-16 American strike aircraft, perhaps through a third country.

Finally, the war may actually be welcomed by the world’s military complexes, especially the major arms corporations, and is also something of a relief for NATO as a whole. There may be political divisions among member states, but the extensive NATO community is at last able to get back to ‘proper’ wars after the appalling consequences of its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Even memories of the chaotic and lethal retreat from Kabul a year ago can at last be forgotten in the face of Putin’s Russia, just the kind of enemy that NATO military thinking is used to and believes it can handle.

If this all seems thoroughly Doomwatch then perhaps it is, but it is always possible that thoughtful analysts and perhaps even one or two political leaders will begin to question the consequences of the war, perhaps aided by occasional more positive developments.

This week, for example, saw President Zelenskyi inviting UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to a summit meeting in Lviv, with Guterres going on to the grain-exporting port of Odessa the following day.

The stated aim was to discuss the whole grain export issue, and no doubt the security of Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant also came up, but it was a reminder that Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and UN diplomats are actually engaged in coordinating grain export from Ukrainian ports, signing a deal in Istanbul on 22 July.

There may be political judgements determining Russia’s going along with this, not least the risk of governments across the Global South blaming Moscow for food shortages, but it still an indicator of a wedge of pragmatism intruding in a seemingly intractable conflict. As so often, UN diplomats are quietly working away with little publicity. Perhaps this time their efforts may be the start of something substantial.

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