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Opinion

Why Biden and NATO must help Ukraine get its wheat to the world – Joseph Bosco

Last week, Russia reversed, at least temporarily, a months-long series of military failures in Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. The fall of Mariupol, after a monumentally heroic holdout defense by Ukrainian forces, represents a much-needed victory for Putin on several levels. When the history of what transpired there is written, it also may be seen as an additional failure of the United States and NATO to do all that they could have done to hasten Russia’s defeat before the war metastasizes into a wider European conflict.

Putin has gained more than control of a partially-demolished old steel factory where several thousand Ukrainian civilians and a thousand fighters had held out for two months against the Russia onslaught. He also has partially erased the image of inevitable Russian losses in the face of Ukrainian valor and competence — that refuted the earlier consensus on Russia’s inevitable conquest of Ukraine.

Tactically, the end of the Mariupol siege also frees up the thousands of Russian forces concentrated there, enabling them to engage in the equally critical campaign in the Donbas region, where Ukraine is trying to push the Russians out of eastern Ukraine and Putin is trying to expand his control.

In addition, the forced surrender of Ukrainian soldiers makes them useful trading material for the release of captured Russians. More ominously, Putin could retaliate for Ukraine’s first war crimes trial of a Russian soldier by prosecuting captive Ukrainians in staged show trials. To bring Ukraine’s international standing down from its moral high ground, Moscow probably will recycle rigged Soviet-style proceedings and coerced confessions to “expose” the latent Ukrainian “Nazism” Putin has ranted about.

Finally, on a strategic level, elimination of the Mariupol resistance removes the final obstacle to Putin’s objective of establishing a land bridge from Russian-occupied Crimea along the Black Sea coast to Odessa. That opens the door for Putin to declare the entire sliver of Ukrainian territory as a separate, Russian-oriented “independent” republic, just as he is threatening to do with the eastern Ukraine territory Russia has occupied since 2014.

The Biden administration and NATO, playing geostrategic catch-up, have dramatically increased the flow of U.S. arms to Ukraine and it clearly has benefited the defenders. But Biden is still withholding weapons that President Volodymyr Zelensky has urgently requested from the outset, including fighter aircraft, large-caliber artillery, and longer-range missile systems. The hesitancy adds to the list of “what-ifs” that history will use to judge the West’s response to Putin’s aggression during four U.S. presidencies.

The Biden administration fears providing such arms might be “provocative” to Putin, who, entirely unprovoked militarily, already has launched the largest European conflict since World War II. As Putin continues to escalate his aggression and threats, the West worries that he will deem its own defensive measures as escalatory. It has even hesitated about providing the necessary security forces at the newly reopened U.S. embassy in Kyiv, a definitionally defensive deployment, for fear of angering Putin. Refreshingly, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin struck the right note when he declared the purpose of U.S. support for Ukraine: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

Russia is systematically bombing railroad stations, where it kills Ukrainian civilians trying to escape, as well as rail lines, to cut off Ukraine’s access to markets for its grains. It is attacking grain production facilities and crops in the field, complementing Russia’s naval blockade of Mariupol and Odessa, the Black Sea ports from which most of Ukraine’s wheat, barley and other grains are exported to countries in Africa and the Middle East.

It is clear that the multi-pronged attacks on Ukraine’s food supply are not merely incidental to the conduct of military operations — collateral agricultural damage — but are part of a comprehensive strategy. Denying Ukraine economic connections to the global market drives up prices beyond the reach of tens of millions of hungry people in poor countries, creating an international food crisis and pressing Ukraine and the West to settle the conflict on Putin’s terms.

As such, the matter no longer is simply a Russia-Ukraine or Russia-NATO conflict but one more manifestation of Russia’s challenge to the rules-based international order. In the most basic and tangible way, Putin effectively has declared war on the people of the world, and the West has an international humanitarian obligation to stop him. That means sending Ukraine not only the nature and quantity of weapons, and intelligence assistance, it needs to defeat Russia decisively in the airspace and on the ground of Ukraine, but also in the Black Sea domain.

Ukraine struck a major blow to Russia’s maritime might when it sank its flagship, the Moskva, using its own homemade Neptune missiles, perhaps assisted by U.S. targeting intelligence. Other Russian vessels have been destroyed. If the West supplies Ukraine with more such weapons and technical support, Russia’s entire Black Sea fleet, with the possible exception of submarines, could be neutralized and the food blockade broken.

If the West does not give Ukraine the weapons it needs to open the Black Sea to normal commerce, the U.S. Navy and NATO allies must do it, perhaps by providing security escorts to grain convoys. The international waterway cannot become what Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called “a Russian lake” — particularly when international food experts say mass starvation is a real consequence. Turkey, NATO’s unreliable ally under Erdoğan, controls access to the Black Sea and must be pressed to allow U.S. ships ready access to free up the world’s food supply.

Washington’s unwillingness to intervene directly in collective self-defense of a fellow democracy that has not requested it is understandable. But U.S. skittishness about providing Ukraine all it needs to defend itself is not. And Russia cannot be allowed to impede freedom of navigation and trample on yet another international norm.

Meanwhile, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, watches with great interest since he already treats the Taiwan Strait as a Chinese inland sea that its aircraft carriers periodically transit, while only smaller U.S. Navy ships have entered it since 2007. Putin cannot be allowed to scare off frequent Western use of the Black Sea, especially when a humanitarian disaster looms.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

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