By withdrawing from a grain agreement that permitted safe passage for vessels exporting cereal crops from Ukraine, Russia has once again taken the initiative as the Ukrainians had in the meantime lost it, security expert Rainer Saks says.
In so doing, Russia is exerting pressure on Ukraine via the international community, Saks told Vikerraadio's "Vikerhommik" Saturday.
Presenter Märt Treier also sought from Saks his assessment on Russian moves to concentrate a huge contingent of troops in the Kupyansk, to the North of the front-line city of Bakhmut, since this will also impact on the success of any Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Saks said: "These are the areas where Russia is trying to organize its offensives. There have been quite a few such onslaughts, but generally, they have been carried out on a relatively small scale so far. Russia has not been able to launch any larger-scale offensive."
Saks highlighted that there have been no very rapid changes in military activity by either side, at the moment. "The fighting continues in the well-established areas. In the south, Ukraine is trying to maintain its push forward, and it is also trying to push forward at Bakhmut, while in both directions, it has been able to advance at a modest pace, but at all times."
Among recent developments, key is Russia's withdrawal from the grain agreement, which has also led to attacks on grain storage facilities and other infrastructure relating to exports from Russia, like Ukraine, a major grain producer for the wider world and in particular the developing world.
"I think that exiting the grain agreement was seen as important for Russia because it presented an opportunity to escalate the pressure on Ukraine at the international level, or to show that Russia has the political clout to be able to continue putting pressure on Ukraine, and to maintain the initiative at the strategic level. This is also because Russia had lost this initiative in the last six months prior to that," Saks went on.
According to Saks, this Russian initiative had been hampered by the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot easily travel abroad.
"On the one hand, he has been put on an international wanted list, and on the other, the Prigozhin uprising [of last month] has not allowed him to leave the country in any case. Russia needed a concrete initiative, so that is what they are trying to achieve right now," Saks added.
"Naturally they also see that, thanks to its grain trade, Ukraine has at its disposal a certain degree of influence in some of the Arab and African nations. But if Russia could oust Ukraine from this grain trade, Ukraine's influence would surely diminish in these regions of the world. Much now depends on the European countries, as to whether they can keep African countries on such a course whereby they do not foster stronger relations with Russia."
Saks also looked at the arrest of pro-war blogger Igor Girkin this week, another recent significant event.
"This need not mean a major transformation in Russian politics. There are two reasons behind Girkin's arrest. One is, in the broader political context, that Prigozhin's rebellion was also preceded by a very serious wave of criticism on the part of the Wagner leader (ie. Prigozhin-ed.) towards the Russian leadership. Apparently, the conclusion has been reached that the Russian leadership cannot afford such strong and constant criticism on the political level. The second reason, which probably necessitated a more rapid response, was that this criticism was also very much directed against the president personally, and surely Putin also cannot allow such a constant flow of criticism to arise, or for it to become, as it were, everyday and normal. The risks would be too high for him. But in this respect, this Prigozhin rebellion did create such a situation."
In terms of arming Ukraine, according to Saks, the country desperately needs fighter jets from the West.
He said: "This is the one very major shortcoming that Ukraine currently has. The question is how many of these planes can be handed over and how Ukraine will be able to effectively utilize and deploy them. These are certainly completely new weapons."
In the case of Western artillery, Saks added, it has been observed that the Ukrainians have been able to use these rapidly and skillfully, and have quickly mastered their use.
"Air defense systems have also worked very well. We do not yet have feedback regarding armor, as it has not yet been used so massively. Planes are undoubtedly even more complex systems, so it is a major challenge to make it all work in concert, to rearm the entire army, and to make the switch to new standards," Saks said
"There has also been some hesitation on the part of the Western countries, which has slowed down these processes. They will likely hand over these planes in the end, anyway. This must be part of the security guarantee given to Ukraine through to Ukraine becoming a member of NATO. We hope that they will be able to do so quickly enough that Russia will not be tempted to start attacking Ukraine once again, a few years down the line."
Rainer Saks is a former Ministry of Foreign Affairs permanent secretary.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Aleksander Krjukov
Source: 'Vikerhommik', interviewer Mart Treier.