The double blackmail exercised by the Russian president, gas blackmail and world famine blackmail, is starting to pay off: the West has just lifted a certain number of sanctions put in place at the start of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Risky decisions have just been adopted by the West, largely eclipsed by media agitation caused by the cereal agreement negotiated thanks to the good offices of Erdogan.
Any negotiation with Russia is dangerous and ends at the expense of anyone who believes that an agreement has been reached with Moscow. In the much publicized Istanbul bargaining, Ukrainian wheat was used as a lure. As soon as the international community took the bait, the Russian trap closed. Moscow demanded a “linkage”. This included the export of Russian wheat (and wheat stolen from Ukraine), with all that that entails, cargo insurance; inspection of Ukrainian cargoes by the Turks and why not by the Russians; demining of Ukrainian ports (which will facilitate the subsequent conquests in Ukraine, including that of Odessa); convoying of Ukrainian cargoes by Russian ships (one can foresee that Russia will find a pretext to scuttle the export of Ukrainian wheat when Kviv refuses these unacceptable conditions). We do not know whether Ukraine will be able to export its grain, but we already know that in exchange for this hypothetical possibility, Russia has just obtained significant relief in sanctions. The West is in danger of being caught up in a dangerous spiral.
We have reached the crucial moment when Western sanctions are beginning to undermine the Russian war effort. A few more weeks of resoluteness and Putin’s regime will find itself on its knees, lacking funding for its war effort, with a grounded civil aviation. (Since February 28, sanctions have prohibited the sale of aircraft, spare parts, and everything else essential for the maintenance of Russian civil aviation. 75% of the Russian air fleet is produced in the West.) Factories have ceased operating due to the lack of spare parts, etc. We only need to hold strong with our sanctions policy for a few more months.
Aware of the vise closing on it, Russia has counter-attacked on several fronts. It is blackmailing the West on grain and gas. Caught between the lobbies interested in trade with Russia and a public opinion unaware of the stakes of the conflict with Moscow, Western leaders have begun to “readjust” the sanctions. Thanks to the agreement sponsored by the United Nations and Turkey, Russia has obtained a guarantee that Western sanctions will not apply, either directly or indirectly, to its exports of agricultural products and fertilizers. EU countries will be able to release funds held by major Russian lenders VTB, Sovkombank, Novikombank, Otkrytie FC Bank, VEB, Promsvyazbank, and Bank Rossiya to finance food purchases1. The United States has offered “guarantees” that large ships will be provided to Russia to facilitate the export of grain and fertilizer because international logistics companies with such vessels are reluctant to work for Moscow2. The 7th EU sanctions package does not mention the gas embargo, only a partial ban on the import of Russian gold and a freeze on Sberbank’s assets.
To save face for the West, it is the UN that will be responsible for ensuring “the removal of anti-Russian restrictions on the export of agricultural products and fertilizers”. In a word, substantial sanctions seem to have been lifted because Russia demanded it as a condition for resuming gas deliveries and the export of Ukrainian grain. The Kremlin is rubbing its hands: “The erosion of the pressure of sanctions is visible to the naked eye”, Niezavisimaya Gazeta struts. As the economist Vasily Koltashov points out, “the events that are taking place this week are leading to the collapse of the anti-Russian sanctions front. […] European countries will gradually begin to follow the example of the United States, which imposes bans only where it is personally beneficial to them, and they will quietly lift restrictions against Russia in the areas they need.” Putin feels the wind in his sails. Had he not told his government worried about the future that the West would not take long to deflate?
“Today, there is a beacon on the Black Sea. A beacon of hope […] in a world that needs it more than ever,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the signing ceremony of the grain agreement attended by Ukrainian and Russian ministers. One thinks of Chamberlain holding up the agreement with Hitler on his return from Munich and extolling “Peace for our time”. The ink on the grain agreement was not yet dry, however, when Russia bombed the port of Odessa and shamelessly lied, demonstrating that it could spit in the face of its “partners” with impunity. At first, they declared to their Turkish interlocutors that Russia had had “nothing to do” with the air strikes, only to announce the next day that they had destroyed military targets.
What was considered as Western concessions led immediately into a crescendo of Russian aggressiveness. The Kremlin determined not to stop there. Sergei Lavrov declared on 20 July 2022 that Russia’s territorial objectives have now gone beyond the Donbass and eastern Ukraine: “This process [of Russian conquest] continues, steadily and persistently”. Moscow will increase its objectives if the West provides Ukraine with long-range weapons. In Cairo, Lavrov said that Russia would help the Ukrainians “get rid of the anti-people government in Kviv”. Publications close to the Kremlin report the formation of an “Odessa Brigade”, which will lead the assault on Mykolaiv and Odessa. Vitaly Ignatiev, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the self-proclaimed Moldovan Republic of Transnistria (MTR), announced that Transnistria intends to join the Russian Federation. Dmitry Belik, a member of the Duma’s Committee on International Affairs, stated that this move should be taken seriously. According to him, the accession of Transnistria to Russia will take place in the near future. Finally, Gazpom’s noose tightens around the EU neck. Gazprom is once again drastically reducing gas exports. The Kremlin gleefully counts the scalps of Western leaders who, according to Moscow, have fallen for their “Russophobia”: Boris Johnson, Mario Draghi, Kirill Petkov in Bulgaria, where “we are witnessing a pro-Russian turn”.
This brutality contrasts with the subtlety of the psychological warfare conducted for months by the Kremlin in Western countries to undermine the will to resist; and in Africa and Asia to persuade them that Western sanctions are the cause of the world’s misfortunes. While dwelling complacently on the apocalyptic prospects of a gas shortage, the Russian media and their stooges in the West persuade us that sanctions against Russia are not effective; that the Russian economy is doing well; that it is the obstinacy of the Ukrainians in not surrendering that is responsible for all our ills, inflation, the shortage of mustard, etc… Tours for the benefit of Western journalists, organized in the Stalinist model by the Russian army in the occupied territories, demonstrate the caring of the Russian authorities towards the local population and instill the idea that there is “a good Ukraine” on the Russian side, much more preferable to the “Kviv Nazis”. Finally, the masters of the Kremlin cynically manipulate the humanitarian concerns of the West. They whisper to us that the best way to end the war and save human lives is to stop arming Ukraine. Moscow has long understood that the humanitarian alibi is the best way to cloud the West’s political judgment; or rather a combination of humanitarianism and the active measures of the pro-Russian lobbies still intact in the West.
The Kremlin hopes to dismantle the Western front of sanctions and to gradulally restore the unhealthy relationship that has been established between Russia and the West since the détente. Thanks to this parasitic coexistence, the Kremlin has been able to deploy against us a formidable war machine, financed and equipped by the West. We can’t let our guard down. Let’s keep in mind that thanks to the sanctions and the courage of the Ukrainians, time is working for us, provided that we do not lack the political will, that partisanship and futility do not distract us from the real issues. Instead of looking down on our fellow Eastern Europeans, let us be inspired by their stoicism and their hard won knowledge of the Kremlin’s wiles. Let us rebuild the “Europe of freedom”, as it was dreamed of in the early 1950s. But this time within the geographical borders of Europe.