Rainer Saks: Shoigu visit to North Korea a 'humiliation' for Moscow

Rainer Saks.
Rainer Saks. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The recent visit to North Korea made by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was a case of Russia scraping the barrel, security expert Rainer Saks says. Despite Russian claims to the contrary, Russia's withdrawal from the Kyiv area in spring 2022 was inevitable, Saks adds.

Speaking to "Ukraina stuudio" Monday, Saks said that his belief is that Shoigu went to North Korea on a mission to request weapons, while the most remarkable aspect of this visit was that it went ahead in the first place.

Saks said: "The most important aspect of the trip is the form it too; following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders had not lowered themselves to the level of going to this country publicly, on such a parade-like visit. This should be interpreted as the trouble being so great that there is nothing to else to do, and the bitter pill must be swallowed."

"In fact, even now, it can be seen that the North Korean leader took advantage of this situation, to bring the spotlight on to itself. This means that there will be no very smooth long-term channels for Russia; every new deal will have to be negotiated, which will not be an easy matter for them. Thus, Russia has placed itself in a much lower league, after this visit, than used to be the case," Saks went on.

"The idea behind ​​the meeting was likely one where Russia would put forward an offer after it had pulled out of the grain deal brokered by the UN and Turkey. The idea might have been the purchase of grain from Russia; Ukraine is about to lose out, the Black Sea opens up, and you can transport grain via Russian ports," he went on.

This had not seen a wholesale uptake from African nations, Saks noted. Many developing countries are likely to be hit by the breakdown of the grain agreement and the curtailment of Ukrainian exports.

"However, we know that African countries generally didn't buy into such a feeble scheme," Saks said.

"There are certainly some individual African countries that are ready to play along with this game, but they just don't have sufficient leverage to do so. Others, who might play along with this game, do not. They do not want to go down such a slippery slope, because things could backfire technically. At the end of the day, everyone knows that Russia will not be able to replace all of Ukraine's grain, so in the end there will still be a grain deficit on the market, and prices will rise, meaning Ukrainian grain will be needed in any case, in one way or another."

"So in that sense, Russia didn't get the desired result," Saks added.

Nonetheless the whole process gives cause for concern since, in Saks' opinion, it demonstrates that Russia has some kind of diplomatic influence process in Africa which is working against the Western countries. The latter, in turn, have not been able to adequately cope with this process.

"If we look at the war in Ukraine from the point of view of who controls Ukraine, be it the West or Russia, we can somehow understand this 'African process,' but actually the question is whether international law as we know it - the UN Charter, etc. – is valid or not and applies to Russia, and in this context a summit should not take place in Russia," Saks added.

Mediated negotiations were going on between Russian and Ukrainian delegations as soon as Russian forces pulled out of the Kyiv area, Saks said, adding that noone could have asked Russia to pull out if Kyiv in that way in order to create a context for peace negotiations outside of Russia itself.

Only the leaders at the Russian Ministry of Defense and the General Staff could have stated unequivocally that we were going to lose there, which indeed it was, including heavy losses among some of its elite units, Saks said "And retreat was inevitable. In that sense, Russia had no choice," he went on.

As for the stories Putin is peddling to African state leaders such as President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, Putin is trying to give the impression, according to Saks, that Russian forces have restrained themselves and can escalate the war to achieve their own goals, if they so desired.

Nonetheless, many African leaders have a better picture of what is really going on in the ground in Ukraine than Putin might have though, Saks said, as evidenced by the South African president's own visit to the town of Bucha, near Kyiv, in June. Bucha was the site of a massacre of civilians by Russian forces prior to their withdrawal from the area, in spring 2022.

"So their awareness of the situation is definitely better than Russia assumes, but Russia is trying to play into their hands a version of events which would lead them take a position supporting Russia in this grain agreement. But it did not work out that way," Saks added.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin met with the leaders of several African countries in St. Petersburg last week, pledging to send 50,000 tonnes of "free" grain to half-a-dozen of them.

At a press conference coinciding with that meeting, Putin made the claim that Russian forces withdrew from the Kyiv area last year after being requested to do so as a precursor to a peace treaty.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, was also at the St. Petersburg meeting, despite being ostensibly exiled to Belarus after the uprising in June.

Rainer Saks noted that this may be a part of a quid pro quo for Wagner conducting military activities on the continent of Africa, on behalf of the Kremlin.

The group had possibly been operating in some African countries prior to February 2022, including Mali, where Estonian Defense Forces had formerly contributed to a French-led peacekeeping mission.

Ultimately, Saks said, Putin was likely procrastinating with the African nations meet, in order to buy time and see what additional opportunities might be on the table for him – although there are no obvious ones at present, he added.

Regarding this situation on the front-line right now, while fighting on the Southern Front will be viable through the autumn, even as late as November, the entire occupied territories are unlikely to be wholly liberated in 2023.

Cause for hope can be found in Ukraine's remaining reserves, which could pick up the pace of the counter-offensive when conditions were amenable to do so.

Rainer Saks is a former Ministry of Foreign Affairs secretary general.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the weekend that Russia's defense minister was most likely in North Korea to secure supplies of weapons to aid the stalled invasion of Ukraine. 


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Merili Nael

Source: 'Ukraina stuudio', interviewer Andres Kuusk.

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