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Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

Lavrov is on Blinken’s List of People to Call

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The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a press availability at the State Department on Wednesday made the dramatic announcement that he intends to speak to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov “in the coming days … for the first time since the war began” in Ukraine on February 24.

Interestingly, he gave an alibi that harks back to the Soviet era — prisoner exchange.

The US is offering a swap of a Russian entrepreneur Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 on a US warrant and later convicted to 25 years in prison on charges of weapons trafficking, in exchange for Brittney Griner, a basketball star who has been detained at Moscow airport on drug charges and, importantly, Paul Whelan, an ex-US Marine, who was arrested in Russia in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison two years later on charges of espionage.

Whelan surely was a prize catch for the Russians. The American ambassador in Moscow had been visiting him in prison.
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Ukraine Grain Deal is a Feel-Good Event. But Road to Peace is Long and Winding

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The agreements signed in Istanbul on Friday regarding the export of grain out of Ukraine and Russia catch the headlines as a major development from the angle of global food security, which it surely is. Between around 22 million tonnes of grain from last year’s harvest now trapped inside Ukraine due to the war, and an estimated 41 million tonnes from Russia’s 2022/23 wheat exports, around 60 million tonnes, are reaching the world grain market.

A conservative estimate is that Russia’s 2022 wheat crop will reach 85 million tonnes and if the weather holds good, it may go up to 90 million tonnes, a record harvest. Suffice to say, Russia’s importance to the global wheat balance in the new season is likely to be unprecedented. Supplies from Russia will account for more than 20 percent of the 2022/23 global wheat trade, consolidating its position as the world’s number one wheat exporting country. 

Thus, two sets of agreements were signed in Istanbul, one relating to the modalities of transportation of the Ukrainian grain from three designated ports on the Black Sea — Odessa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhne — via a “grain corridor” to Turkey and a second one between Russia and the United Nations relating to the lifting of western sanctions on Russia’s exports of wheat and fertiliser.
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A Pivotal Moment in Eastern Ukraine

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The retreat of Ukrainian troops from Severodonetsk city in the Luhansk Oblast of the country is a pivotal moment in the ongoing conflict. The Russian forces are now almost in total control over the Luhansk region. The latest reports from front lines say Russian forces entered the last remaining city of Lysychansk in Luhansk on June 25.

In a briefing today, Russian Ministry of Defence announced in Moscow: “On June 25, the cities of Severodonetsk and Borovskoye, the settlements of Voronovo and Sirotino passed under control of the Lugansk People’s Republic. The localities liberated… are inhabited by about 108,000 people. Total area of the liberated territory is about 145 square kilometres.

“Success of the Russian army… considerably diminishes the morale and psychological condition of the Ukrainian army personnel. In 30th Mechanised Brigade deployed near Artyomovsk, there are mass cases of alcohol abuse, drug use and unauthorised abandonment of combat positions.”

However, peace is a long way off — several months away, perhaps. In the speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week at the SPIEF in St. Petersburg, he made no references to peace negotiations. Putin hardly referred to the fighting.
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Next 100 Days of Ukraine War

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The New York-based Council on Foreign Relations held a videoconference on May 31 titled Russia’s War in Ukraine: How does it end? The president of the think tank Richard Haas chaired the panel of distinguished participants — Stephen Hadley, Prof. Charles Kupchan, Alina Polyakova and Lt. Gen. (Retd) Stephen Twitty. It was a great discussion dominated by the liberal internationalist stream that has so far guided President Biden’s national security team, which wants to help Ukraine fight a long war against Russia. 

The striking thing about the discussion was the acknowledgement candidly articulated by an ex-general who had actually fought in wars that there is no way Russia can be defeated in Ukraine, and, therefore, there has to be some clarity as to the stated endgame to “weaken” Russia. The gloomy prognosis was that European unity apropos the war is no longer holding. 

Third, one plausible scenario would be that Russia turns Ukraine into a “frozen conflict” once the current phase of the war reaches the administrative boundaries of Donbass, connects Donbas to Crimea and incorporates Kherson and a “strategic pause and a stalemate in the not-too-distant future” may open the door for diplomacy. 

Conceivably, a cold air of realism is blowing across the Washington establishment that Russia is winning the Battle of Donbass and an ultimate Russian military victory over Ukraine is even within the realms of possibility.
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Creating Cold War Conditions in Asia Isn’t Easy

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Only three weeks remain for the summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in Madrid, which is expected to unveil a new Strategic Concept aimed at redefining “the security challenges facing the Alliance and outline the political and military tasks that NATO will carry out to address them.”

The NATO and the European Union are in unison that the world has fundamentally changed in the past decade and strategic competition is rising, and security threats in Europe and Asia are now so deeply connected that the two continents become a “single operating system”. 

The past week saw some “finishing touches” to the new cold war agenda — the US President Joe Biden hosting Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand; three tiny NATO countries in the Balkans blocking their air space to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to visit Serbia; and, Japan hosting the NATO Military Committee chief Rob Bauer. 

The first one was about Washington stepping in to draw New Zealand, the reluctant Pacific partner standing in the shade, towards the Indo-Pacific centre stage. (Biden actually invoked memories of the landing of US troops in World War II in New Zealand.) The second was an unprecedented act of diplomatic taboo, like dogs marking territory — “Serbia belongs to the West.” And Japan and NATO have messaged a new level of cooperation. 
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Russia’s Ukraine operation has no deadline

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In his first extended remarks in nearly a month about the conflict in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that peace talks had reached a “dead end” and pledged that Russia’s “military operation will continue until its full completion.” 

Putin defined a more limited aim for the war, focusing on control of the Donbass — and not all of Ukraine. Putin reiterated that Russia’s actions so far in several regions of Ukraine were intended only to tie down enemy forces and carry out missile strikes with the purpose of destroying the Ukrainian military’s infrastructure, so as to “create conditions for more active operations on the territory of Donbass.”

In his words, “Our goal is to provide aid to the people of Donbass, who feel an unbreakable bond with Russia and have been the subjects of genocide for eight years.”

Asked why the operation cannot be speeded up, Putin told reporters: “I often get these questions, ‘can’t we hurry it up?’ We can. But it depends on the intensity of hostilities and, any way you put it, the intensity of hostilities is directly related to casualties.” 

He made it clear that “our task is to achieve the set goals while minimising these losses. We will act rhythmically, calmly, and according to the plan that was initially proposed by the General Staff.” He added, “The operation is going according to plan.”
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US Shows the Exit Ramp to Russia

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Getting off your high horse is never easy and it remains to be seen how deftly Moscow navigates its path in the downstream of President Vladimir Putin’s 50-minute phone conversation Thursday with his American counterpart Joe Biden. 

Washington highlighted that the conversation took place following Putin’s “request” — meaning, the Kremlin is on the back foot. 

The Russian readout claims that the forthcoming diplomatic engagements in Geneva in the second week of January between Russia and the US, NATO and the OSCE successively will be about “providing Russia with legally binding security guarantees.” but the White House is non-committal. 

The Kremlin readout claims that Biden emphasised that “Washington had no intention of deploying offensive strike weapons in Ukraine.” But the US statements failed to acknowledge it. Instead, in a background press call, a senior White House official was categorical that “there were certainly no declarations as to intentions.” 

He firmly reiterated that any “further invasion of Ukraine” on Russia’s part will entail “costs (that) include economic costs, include adjustments and augmentations of NATO force posture in Allied countries, and include additional assistance to Ukraine.”
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