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Open questions on the war: The Black Sea, an invisible “war”


Open questions on the war: The Black Sea, an invisible “war”

by Alastair Crooke

Does the West's despair over Ukraine's military prospects imply an imminent lull in the war? Or on the contrary, a Western strategic shift towards a different mode of attrition warfare against Russia?

The Ukrainian offensive has breathless - same CNN says it:

«[The Ukrainians] will still see, [if] in the next two weeks there is a chance to make progress. But I think it's very, very unlikely that they'll make any progress that would change the balance of this conflict.»Said to CNN a high-ranking Western diplomat whose name has not been released.

Yet, as a “war front” bows out, an “off-screen” war over Black Sea shipping looms on the horizon.

This 'new war' could also be called the 'grain war', following Moscow's breakdown of the grain deal last month. To underscore his serious intention to end what, for Russia, had turned out to be a completely unsatisfactory (amid a general renunciation of its terms), Moscow moved to neutralize port facilities at a number of Black Sea ports serving Ukraine, which it claimed had been used to stockpile weapons ( as well as to export cereals).

On July 19, Moscow warned that all ships approaching Ukraine from the following day would be considered potential carriers of military cargo and treated accordingly. Insurance coverage costs naturally skyrocketed.

A few days later, on July 24, the grain infrastructure of the Ukrainian port of Reni was destroyed. It was a “message” addressed to the West to signify Russia's determination to end the grain agreement.

Russia claimed that on July 31, Ukraine unsuccessfully attacked a Russian civilian vessel and two warships (using three maritime drones) in the Black Sea. Ukraine denied the attack and said it would never attack a civilian ship. However, a month later, Ukraine admitted attacking a civilian tanker in the port of Novorossiysk on August 4.

NATO then upped the ante: On August 1, three civilian cargo ships entered the Ukrainian port of Izmail. This port – like Reni – is on the Danube, an almost literal stone's throw from (NATO) Romania. This was a “taunt” of NATO – the Black Sea is not a “Russian lake”, it was implied. And the ships were moored within 500 meters of NATO “territory”. One of the vessels was owned by an Israeli company, another by a Greek company and the third by a Turkish-Georgian company, but they were all registered in states such as Liberia.

On August 2, Russia destroyed the grain silos in Izmail using precision drones.

Ukraine is desperate to keep the grain deal. It represents “a lot of money” for the Ukrainian agribusiness which controls these exports. And this represents "a lot of money" for the Turkish intermediary, who transforms the cereals into flour, before reselling it (mainly in Europe, with a high mark-up).

The “first round” of this competition was therefore “that of Moscow”. But NATO then “upped the ante” a second time, with two “Ukrainian” maritime drone attacks: One on a small empty civilian tanker and the other on a landing craft anchored in the port of Novorossiysk. Neither ship sank, but both were seriously damaged.

The Novorossiysk attack is not small fry, however. This seaport, located beyond the Crimean peninsula, is one of the largest in Russia in terms of volume and one of the largest in Europe; it is essential for the export of grain, oil and other Russian products to the whole world. It has been an international trade hub for Russia since the XNUMXth century.

This is therefore clearly a serious challenge and a provocation towards Moscow. Oleg Ostenko of Zelensky's office went on to say that all Russian Black Sea ports were now valid military targets for a Ukrainian attack.

The outstanding questions following this event are: To what extent were these attacks facilitated and directed by NATO? And for what purpose? Clearly these were NATO initiatives – one clue is that the tanker targeted was on the US sanctions list for supplying fuel to Syria. A fairly obvious 'touch' of the CIA.

Long-range maritime and underwater drones are a specialty of the UK (Special Boat Squadron) and the US (Seals). These are not ordinary weapons. This is specialized equipment in which only a few states have expertise. Did Britain or the United States supply the drones to Kyiv? How were they used?

Targeting coordinates – to some extent – ​​may be pre-arranged, but videos released by kyiv of the final attack approach appear to show last-minute course corrections. Under water, radio transmissions travel only a short distance. Were the final course corrections provided by a team close to port, or from above, by an operator sitting in a NATO plane somewhere overhead? Where were these drones launched from? From a “friendly port” on the Danube? A large part of the weapons destined for Ukraine arrive via the Danube. Or was there a mother ship nearby?

If this is indeed a primarily NATO-led operation, what could Russia do about it?

These questions remain "open" and Moscow has not provided any answers (to date). There is no doubt that they are investigating and wondering if these attacks represent a deliberate Western escalation that NATO intends to support with equipment and intelligence, or if these attacks were just crude incitement for Moscow to resume the agreement on the export of Ukrainian cereals?

(Reports suggest that JP Morgan has been in talks with the Russian Agricultural Bank about the possibility of the Russian Bank using JP Morgan to transact in US dollars under a resurrected grain deal).

The question of a possible 'Black Sea war', however, could merge and coincide with the larger question of Russia's military 'next steps' in Ukraine, as Ukrainian forces increasingly show the obvious of chronic exhaustion.

There are signals in the US media that US policy is changing (but not yet final). One thing, however, is clear: the United States reject responsibility for the failed offensive on Ukraine – and now, for the first time, kyiv responds to teasing by ridiculing the West's failure to deliver what it promised. It is clear that relations are deteriorating.

However, alongside the West's disavowal and distancing of Ukraine's military tactics to attack the "Surovikine lines", the NATO powers also seem to be giving up on entering into negotiations (despite pressure from the media lobby). Perhaps Western policymakers now consider a “negotiated” outcome could be humiliating for Biden.

To put it plainly: Does this Western desperation of the Ukrainian military prospects imply an imminent lull in the war or, on the contrary, a Western strategic shift towards a different mode of attrition warfare against Russia?

In short, do the Novorossiysk attacks presage a shift to "real war", where Russia's transport infrastructure is a priority target? Or were the Novorossiysk attacks just a simple signal to Russia: "Relaunch the export of Ukrainian grain"?

The larger question that this attack on Novorossiysk “opens up” is whether or not Russia might feel that it has been too cautious and incremental in pursuing its strategic goals. The missile strikes on Reni and Izmail can be seen as very tentative moves by Russia to test the ground and NATO's appetite for a "real war" - where enemy transport infrastructure would be a priority target for attacks.

Is this the time when Russia might feel it should go to “real war” – firstly, because the ground in Ukraine suggests the time is ripe? And second, because on another level, there is a need to address the perpetual dilemma of all conflict:

Any military approach (such as Sun Tzu's saying: "It's the emotionless, reserved, calm and detached warrior who wins, not the hothead”) and any approach that recognizes the weakness of the psyche of its opponents and the need to nudge them gently towards acceptance of a new and unknown reality, is always liable to be misinterpreted as a sign of weakness.

In other words, is a Russian show of force necessary to correct the Western misperceptions that continue to fantasize about Russia's coming weakness, turmoil and political collapse? Sun Tzu would retort:Engage people with what they expect. This is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It sets them up in predictable response patterns, occupying their minds – waiting for the extraordinary moment – ​​with what they cannot anticipate.».

Well, maybe some answers can be given: Western war hawks (to use an old metaphor) might talk a lot, but NATO has no real war pants. The West, even today, is struggling on the cusp of an economic crisis with supply disruptions: A tanker war would be fatal (oil would skyrocket and so would inflation). Exit from illusion is always slow, as Sun Tzu suggests.

The old adage is that war is the "extension of politics by other means", but especially today, "other means" can be – and often are – the extension of politics. Today, Russia plays the role of "scout" towards a new multipolar world bloc. As such, Russia must act politically while keeping the eyes glued about the Global South, as well as the nuances of a West teetering on the cusp of radical metamorphosis.

Military commands may not care, but the Global South admires Russia precisely because it does not imitate colonial powers. The world respects power, sure, but it's had enough of "firepower." Russia now has a leading role to play, and there are many interest groups that need to be taken into account. This will be underscored in the coming days as events unfold in Niger and the BRICS summit continues, with new arrangements for trade mechanisms high on the agenda.

The effective use of "other means of asymmetric power" depends above all on timing. (Sun Tzu for the last time): “Occupy their minds waiting for the right moment”. It would seem that President Putin knows The Art of War very well.

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