Discover more from Letters from an American
July 20, 2023
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision not to attend the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, illustrates how fully his 2022 invasion of Ukraine has made him an international pariah. BRICS is an organization made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, all considered fast-growing economies that would dominate the global economy by 2050 at the time it began to organize in 2006.
A lot has changed since then.
Because the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes, specifically his regime’s deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia, he was at risk of arrest and extradition if he went to South Africa. Although that country has maintained neutrality in the war, it signed on to the treaty governing the ICC and thus has an obligation to arrest and surrender those under indictment by the ICC.
After much speculation about whether he would attend the summit while he pressured South African president Cyril Ramaphosa to agree not to arrest him, yesterday Putin announced that by “mutual agreement” with Ramaphosa, he will not attend and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov will go in his place. Alexandra Sharp of Foreign Policy noted that his inability to attend the summit shows how his position as an accused war criminal has isolated Putin and “highlights just how much the Russian leader’s global standing has changed thanks to his war on Ukraine.”
Also yesterday, the U.S. Department of Defense announced another security assistance package for Ukraine, worth $1.3 billion and including surface to air missile systems, mine-clearing equipment, fuel trucks, and tactical vehicles to tow, haul, and recover equipment. That matériel will take time to provide, but much of it signals an army retaking territory.
As if to demonstrate what power he has left, Putin’s forces attacked the key Ukrainian shipping ports of Mykolaiv and Odesa, destroying 60,000 tons of grain that Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky said was destined for Africa and Asia, including China. Then Putin announced that he was ending Russian participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative as of July 20 and would consider any ships that sailed to or from Ukraine’s ports on the Black Sea a “Hostile Military Transport.” Putin’s declaration that he might target the civilian ships of foreign powers threatened to escalate the war, but he quickly backed down on that threat today. Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. said Russia is not preparing to attack civilian ships.
The Black Sea grain deal, which facilitates the export of Ukrainian grain to the world market so long as the ships travel in certain channels, already gave Russia more influence over international shipping than its 10% of the Black Sea coastline warranted. And, to maintain that control, Russia planted sea mines in the waters around Ukrainian ports outside the safe channels.
Now the White House has warned that U.S. officials have information that Russia has added more mines in those waters with the intention of blaming Ukraine if those mines cause damage to foreign ships.
There are (at least) three key aspects of this announcement. First, Putin is threatening vulnerable countries with starvation and trying to jack up grain prices around the world, which will hit all countries but primarily poorer ones. The United Kingdom’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Barbara Woodward, pointed out that 33 million tons of grain have been exported under the grain deal, and that the primary beneficiaries have been Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Turkey, Sudan, Kenya, and Somalia.
Second, he was daring the other countries on the Black Sea, three of which belong to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to call his bluff.
Third, he is trying to destroy Ukrainian shipping infrastructure to hamstring its post-war future. Odesa is a historic and fabled city; it is also the key to shipping grain out of Ukraine. Capturing it, with its symbolic and practical value, was likely Putin’s primary goal in the first place. His willingness to destroy the city seems to indicate that he has given up on claiming it.
In response, Ukrainian forces began to use the so-called cluster munitions the U.S. provided earlier this month, firing the weapons at the Russian troops in Ukraine. Cluster munitions explode over a target, blanketing a large area with deadly smaller munitions. They are banned in more than 120 countries because those smaller munitions often hit the ground unexploded and lie there until civilians run across them, with deadly results.
Ukraine, Russia, and the U.S. have not banned the weapons, and Ukraine asked the U.S. to provide them for use within Ukraine, against Russian troops. Biden did so, after months of debate within the White House and strong disagreement from those who want the weapons banned altogether. President Biden eventually decided to send the cluster munitions, apparently in part because the areas of Ukraine where they would be deployed are already uninhabitable because of Russian mines and in part because Ukrainians themselves requested the weapons to throw out the Russian invaders, who have been using cluster munitions against Ukrainian civilians.
“Of course it’s a tragedy, but everything right now is a tragedy,” former defense minister of Ukraine Andriy Zagorodnyuk told Josh Kovensky of Talking Points Memo about using the munitions. “So the question is how to end the tragedy and, unfortunately, the only way so far to get peace is to win the peace.”
The U.S. Treasury and the U.S. State Department today announced additional sanctions on companies that have given Russia access to products that feed the war, provide revenue from minerals and mining, give it access to the international financial system, or provide military technology.