Russia has entered a dangerous new phase of its war against Ukraine since it exited the Black Sea grain deal earlier this month, weaponizing global food exports, stepping up attacks on Ukrainian ports and cities and increasing the risk of spillover into NATO countries.
Russia’s escalation is unlikely to deter the U.S. and allies from following through on delivering F-16 fighter jets and long-range missiles to Ukraine in the coming months, which Moscow has repeatedly warned against.
But it comes as Ukraine is struggling to make major gains in its grinding counteroffensive, and Russia’s strategy appears aimed at straining U.S. and European partners who have provided billions in assistance to Ukraine over the course of 16 months.
“Certainly, it’s an escalation,” said Thomas Graham, a distinguished fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and who served as a senior director for Russia on the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush.
“Russia, I think, is clearly making an effort to continue to deepen the damage to the Ukrainian economy,” he added. “It has implications for Ukraine’s ability to continue the war effort, it raises concerns about attacks on NATO territory … so it’s a reason to be concerned.”
Since pulling out of the Black Sea grain deal July 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin has targeted attacks on Ukraine’s southern city of Odesa, damaging the seaport and grain storage facilities and hitting residential and historical buildings, including an Orthodox cathedral.
The grain deal, negotiated by the United Nations and Turkey, allowed for the export of Ukrainian grain through a Russian blockade on the Black Sea, clearing the way for 33 million metric tons of foodstuffs to move across the world, largely to developing countries, since it took effect in July 2022.
But now, Putin is warning he views commercial ships in the Black Sea as legitimate military targets. The U.S. and the United Kingdom are warning Russia is plotting “false flag operations,” covertly mining the sea with the purpose of blaming Ukraine for any explosions.
NATO and member countries bordering Ukraine are on high alert.
“Russia bears full responsibility for its dangerous and escalatory actions in the Black Sea region,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday during a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council.
“Russia’s actions also pose substantial risks to the stability of the Black Sea region, which is of strategic importance to NATO,” he added. “Allies are stepping up support to Ukraine and increasing our vigilance. We remain ready to defend every inch of Allied territory from any aggression.”
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis on Monday condemned a Russian attack on a civilian port on the Danube River in Ukraine near his country, tweeting that the “escalation pose[s] serious risks to the security in the Black Sea.”
And Putin last week delivered a threat to NATO member Poland, accusing Warsaw of having designs on Belarus and saying an attack against Minsk would trigger a response from Moscow.
Poland is dispatching an additional 1,000 troops to its borders with Belarus, concerned over Wagner mercenary forces exiled to the country after retreating from a short-lived rebellion against Moscow in June.
Mary Beth Long, who served as assistant secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush administration, said Russia is seeking to maximize pressure on Kyiv and its allies in the lead-up to a slowdown of military operations by the winter.
“You can’t escalate your way in or out of this, I think both sides know that. But there’s more consequences to Ukraine because Russia is bigger, Russia is willing to strike civilians and its infrastructure, and it has shown that it can successfully do so,” she said.
“There’s no real consequences to Russia, from Ukraine or NATO, there’s no penalty to be paid for that, so that clears the way for him [Putin] to continue to not only strike against critical infrastructure and these nodes but to expand it.”
Long warned that Russia views the month of August as the best opportunity to inflict the most damage without a coherent response from the West, as American lawmakers are absent from Capitol Hill, European capitals are similarly quiet and NATO has no major meetings.
“I think Russia’s made the assessment that it has freedom of movement, in the next couple of months in particular,” she said. “It is doing everything it can to set the playing field before winter and it will continue to do so.”
While Russia is ramping up military tensions in the Black Sea, experts said its withdrawal from the grain deal is focused on the economic realm: sanctions relief and increasing trade.
“Russia really wants to make a deal,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the International Security Program of the Center for Security and International Security (CSIS).
“The difficult trade-offs for the U.S. and the West are not going to be the military equipment ones, but the ones about economics and sanctions. Are we willing to ease those restrictions in the interests of opening up grain shipments?” he asked.
Putin has long criticized the deal as failing to meet his demands for the export of Russian grains and fertilizer and has given little to no signal that he’s open to rejoining the agreement.
During a meeting with African leaders in St. Petersburg on Thursday, the Russian president committed to delivering nearly 300,000 tons of grain to six African countries “free of charge.”
The Russian president is also calling for sanctions relief on Russia’s agricultural bank, Rosselkhozbank, wanting it reconnected to the SWIFT international payment network.
Absent Moscow’s cooperation, the options for shipping grain out of Ukraine are not attractive.
While Ukraine is shipping grain and foodstuffs by rail and road, that amount is hundreds of thousands of tons less than can be moved through the Black Sea.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense tweeted Wednesday that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is altering its position in preparation to enforce a blockade against Ukraine, warning the “potential for the intensity and scope of violence in the area to increase.”
Still, Cancian from the CSIS was optimistic that a solution surrounding grain exports from Ukraine would be reached in a relatively short time frame.
“They’re likely to make a deal in a week or so,” he said. “This is, I think, unlikely to sort of linger for weeks or months.”
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