The Wheat Agreement and Africa. A Russian gamble

(To Philip Del Monte)

A few days ago Russia announced its withdrawal from Grain Deal and that he wishes to have recourse to the right to visit and inspect neutral ships bound for or departing from Ukrainian ports. The same has been announced by Ukraine for ships bound for or departing from Russian ports.

Given that an attack in the open sea against a merchant ship of a neutral country (even if it were NATO) just because it comes from or goes to Ukraine would not play into the hands of the Russians, the fact remains that this significant declaration can at least be traced back, as explained by Moscow, to the use of the "right of visit", provided under and above the international straits and archipelagic waters of the belligerents in accordance with general international law.

However, the formal denunciation of the agreement by the Kremlin has not yet been received by the UN. This may mean that Vladimir Putin does not want to leave too de jure by the "Black Sea Grain Initiative", but which aims to renegotiate the points in favor of Kyiv.

Moscow's official thesis is that the naval corridors in the Black Sea, established to safeguard the grain routes, have been used by the Ukrainians for military purposes, hitting Russian targets by making themselves a "shield" of the guarantees given by the Istanbul agreement signed in July 2022 .

The withdrawal of Russian officials from the Istanbul joint coordination monitoring compliance with the grain deal is another Kremlin political gesture with great significance. Russia is putting pressure on NATO and believes that a political-diplomatic escalation relating to the wheat agreement could push those it considers its only interlocutors in the enemy camp to reopen some dossiers.

The violent bombings to which important infrastructures for Ukraine (and for the world) are subjected, such as the port of Odessa, and the placement of mines in the Black Sea are signs of the new Russian strategy, based entirely on the "potential of blackmail" against of the West.

It should be borne in mind that, given the way they are structured, Russian mining operations have a clear offensive connotation, aimed at prohibiting navigation to the Ukrainians and intimidating neutral civilian shipping.

The ultimate goal is not military but political in this case (but functional to choke the counter-offensive of the Ukrainian Armed Forces): to foment, on the basis of the grain agreement, the divisions between NATO and Ukraine.

The Russian air campaign, on the other hand, has a double purpose: military and political.

The first aimed at deeply weakening Ukrainian logistics while the forces of Kyiv are engaged in an offensive that is struggling to take off. On the front, an acceleration is expected in the short term, also to respond to the pressure that NATO exerts on the Ukrainians in this sense.

The general who fell out of favor with Putin, Surovikin, had already supported the importance of structuring a campaign that exploited Russian air superiority to disrupt the enemy logistics chain and throw the population into terror.

Clausewitz in "Della Guerra" explained that, at the time of lengthening the lines of communication and supply (GLOCS) of an offensive army, it would have been advisable for the defenders to attempt attacks deep in the rear.

Hitting Ukrainian cities with missiles and drones responds to this strategy.

From a political point of view, by bombing Odessa, the Kremlin wants to demonstrate that Ukraine is not able to guarantee the security of the grain routes, hitting them directly at the "source", without a return of Russia to the "Black Sea Grain Initiative".

All in all, the wheat deal remains the only instrument in the hands of Russian politics to attempt a "muscular dialogue" with the US and NATO, treating Ukraine not as an interlocutor but as an "object" of the talks.

It is a diplomatic gamble since it aims to force the hand of the West with the threat of the food crisis, but which risks alienating Russia (and there are all the signs) the sympathies of a part of the African states or negatively influencing the perception of those who have so far remained "neutral" with respect to the ongoing conflict.

It is a hypothesis which, however, is not taken into consideration by Westerners, also because, according to UN data, the "blackmail of hunger" waved by the Russians like a flag concerns 400 million people, figures which Moscow must take into consideration for understand how far to "pull the rope".

Speaking of Africa, it must be remembered that it is one of the "peripheral fronts" of the Russo-Ukrainian war, a continent on which Moscow is spending important political resources.

In a article published on the Kremlin website on 24 July, Vladimir Putin recalled Russian-African cooperation, which has its roots in the anti-colonialism of the USSR.

The Russian president recalled how, thanks to Soviet support, over 80 large infrastructures and industries were built in Africa in the mid-330s, such as power plants, irrigation systems, industrial and agricultural enterprises, proposing "African solutions to African problems ”.

Again, then, Putin reconnected the current Russian presence in Africa to the Soviet past, when by leveraging on communism and anticolonialism, Moscow was able to influence the states of the black continent, acting as a counterpart to the USA and their European allies.

Anti-colonialism and Third Worldism are still the ideological levers that Russia is trying to use with African countries also with regard to the question Grain Deal.

For Putin, the initial purpose of the grain deal was “ensure global food security, reduce the threat of hunger and help the poorest countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America”, which later turned into a major US, European and Ukrainian fraud, with a total of 32,8 million tons of supplies were exported from Kyiv, with over 70% of exports going to high and middle income countries , including the EU.

Putin then underlines how “Of the 262.000 tonnes of cargo held up in European ports, only two shipments were delivered: one of 20.000 tonnes in Malawi and one of 34.000 tonnes in Kenya”, also blocking free Russian supplies of fertilizers and mining products to African countries.

The two countries mentioned specifically are the ones that have recently asked Russia to rethink its choices and to reopen negotiations.

Russia would have exited the Black Sea Grain Initiative because the agreement would have betrayed the humanitarian purposes for which it was signed.

Africa remains essential for Russia, so much so that, despite the Prighozin affair, Wagner remained in place and neither the Kremlin nor the leaders of Moscow's defense have attempted to dismantle its network on the continent.

A Russia cut off from its traditional markets due to sanctions is forced to carve out spaces elsewhere and, beyond its structural - induced - rapprochement with China (which is also supplying military equipment to the Russians), in the southern hemisphere tries to play a leading role to take up those spaces that are denied elsewhere.

This is why Putin cannot suffer the political and image repercussions caused by the "de facto" exit (not also "de iure" for the moment) from the Grain Deal.

What is certain is that, if "closing" the Black Sea can be beneficial from a military point of view, from a political-diplomatic point of view Russia has probably made a risky move.

Ukrainian issues must always be observed with a "global eye".

Photo: Kremlin (Ria Novosti)