An August Fraught With Danger

13 mins. to read
An August Fraught With Danger

Summer Heat

August is the month when wars can come to the boil.

Thousands of Huguenots (Protestants) were massacred by Catholic radicals in Paris on 24 August 1572 in what became known to history as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. British forces captured Washington on 24 August 1812 – and burnt down the Capitol. This was in retaliation for the American invasion of Canada. In the same month, Napoleon’s Grande Armée advanced inexorably towards Moscow.

The German Empire declared war on France on 3 August 1914 in response to the mobilisation of its forces. Britain declared war on Germany the next day, given the entry of German forces into neutral Belgium. The global confrontation that we know as World War One exploded.

Hitler was proclaimed Führer of the German Reich on 19 August 1934. Germany and Russia signed the Nazi-Soviet pact on 23 August 1939, making Germany’s invasion of Poland one week later all but inevitable. The Second World War entered its final phase when the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, and a second one on Nagasaki on 9 August. The Soviet Union declared war on the Japanese Empire on 8 August 1945 and invaded Manchuria. Interestingly, that was the last time that one state formally declared war on another.

The construction of the Berlin Wall commenced on 13 August 1961. The Vietnam War can be dated from the passage through Congress of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 7 August 1964, which authorised President Lyndon Johnson to take “any measures necessary.” Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990. President George Bush Senior ordered Operation Desert Shield just five days later. There was a coup in the Soviet Union against Mikhail Gorbachev on 19 August 1991, a date etched on Vladimir Putin’s consciousness: it foreshadowed the dissolution of the Soviet Union four months later (a date etched on Vladimir Putin’s consciousness).

In this August of 2023, the vicious Russia-Ukraine war enters its twentieth month with still no definitive sign of how it will conclude. The long-expected Ukrainian summer offensive into Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory has met heavily fortified resistance. Ukrainian forces have only been able to advance a few kilometres across Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, very likely with heavy casualties on both sides. Ukrainian artillery, supplied by NATO allies, is pounding Russian positions relentlessly.

The Ukrainians have also stepped up drone attacks on Moscow and other Russian cities in a bid to remind the Russian people, many of whom apparently do support Putin, that this is their war too. This has certainly been a good war for drone designers and manufacturers. But there is an impending sense that the war on the ground has reached stalemate. On Tuesday evening (8 August), Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat who has recently met with US commanders training Ukrainian forces in Europe, told CNN: “This is the most difficult time of the war.” Ukraine, he said, was “highly unlikely” to make a breakthrough.

The Russians are not going to give up territories that they have already annexed, and the Ukrainians are not going to accept the dismemberment of their country. There is zero chance of constructive negotiations at this juncture because of what I call the diplomatic imperative: the minimum demand of one adversary exceeds the maximum conceivable concession of the other. Therefore, war continues. But in what form?

The fear is that at this point Putin & Co. will resort to tactical or ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons. Putin’s sinister ‘glove puppet,’ Dmitry Medvedev (who served as president from 2008 to 2012) ventured on 30 July on social media that Russia “might be forced to go nuclear.” Even the use of a “small” nuclear device would entirely change the dynamic of the war. We would be plunged into a global crisis (though we are in one already) – and the stance of China would be pivotal.

Last weekend, Saudi Arabia hosted more than 40 countries in Riyadh for talks on how to end the war. Russia was not invited and dismissed the gathering as “pointless.” But Chinese officials did attend, commenting that those present helped to “consolidate an international consensus” on the need for peace. Ukrainian officials seized on China’s words as a sign of hope. EU diplomats said China’s presence reflected Russia’s deepening isolation.

The Geopolitics Of Wheat

The Russian-Ukraine war, launched deliberately by Putin on 24 February last year, is a war about land and resources, as all wars are. Before the war, Ukraine, along with Russia, was one of the most significant exporters of grain (wheat, corn and barley) to the Levant and the Maghreb, and thence to much of Africa. Ukraine, with its rich black soil, has been known for centuries as a grain basket. That is one major reason why Russia wants it back.

In July last year, under a deal brokered by the UN and Turkey, Russia agreed to the Initiative on the Safe Transportation of Grain and Foodstuffs from Ukrainian ports. That meant that Ukrainian vessels went unmolested by the Russian Navy as they crossed the Black Sea and passed through the Dardanelles (controlled by Turkey) to the Mediterranean and beyond. Over the past year, more than 1,000 ships containing an estimated 33 million metric tonnes of grain and other foodstuffs left Ukraine from its three ports: Odesa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhne. Levantines and Africans have continued to use Ukrainian grain to bake their bread – until now, that is.

On 17 July, as anticipated, Putin formally announced that Russia would no longer abide by the grain deal and therefore that Ukrainian vessels exporting grain could henceforth be subject to Russian attack. The reason given was that the West had not fulfilled its side of the bargain – namely that it would permit Russia to export its fertilisers and other agricultural commodities. That would have meant readmitting Russian Agricultural Bank to the SWIFT international payment platform, which did not occur.

And it gets worse. In recent weeks, Russia seems to have adopted a strategy of systematically destroying Ukrainian grain storage silos. Several such facilities have been destroyed in Odesa oblast, including the at the port of Chornomorsk; and on 03 August Russian missiles landed on a grain store on the mouth of the Danube, where that river forms the boundary between Ukrainian territory and Romania. The river Danube is a critical route for Ukrainian barges to ship grain and other commodities to central Europe.

In response, Ukraine has started to attack Russian ships in the Black Sea using naval drones – unmanned robot boats. One target, the Russian oil tanker Sig, was reportedly carrying a consignment of jet fuel from Novorossiysk to Crimea. The Ukrainians have now indicated that all Russian shipping is fair game.

Needless to say, the end of the grain deal led to a spike in wheat futures contracts over the second half of July. However, the price of wheat has now softened because Russia is likely to have a record harvest, and much-needed rain has fallen in the Mid-West grain belt of the US.

As I write, the price per bushel of wheat for one year delivery is around the $6.50 mark. (One bushel is a sack weighing about 27 kilograms of grain – supposedly, one million kernels). Similarly, the threat to Russian exports of oil has caused turbulence in the oil market. Crude oil for six months delivery has gone from $67.78 on 27 June to $80.55 on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the spot price for Brent Crude hit $87. Petrol prices at the pump are up again, as British readers who are motorists will have noticed.

Putin wants to break the Ukrainian economy. If that brings about hunger in Lebanon and Africa, that is just collateral damage as far as he is concerned. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed regret about “Putin’s weaponization of food.” And EU foreign affairs High Representative Josep Borrell claimed that Russia was “using hunger as a weapon.”

The Russians argue that most of the grain shipped out of Ukraine over the last year ended up, not in the poorest countries, but in China and the EU. It is true that much Ukrainian grain has also been transported overland across Europe through so-called “solidarity routes” set up by the EU. This has provoked controversy. In April, the governments of Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia banned the sale of Ukrainian grain because it was being sold at less than the production costs of their own farmers.

Trouble In Africa

The turbulence in the grain markets has already had political repercussions in Africa.

The military coup in the Saharan African state of Niger has further undermined geopolitical stability. On 26 July, a group of senior army officers seized power, imprisoning President Mohamed Bazoum, who has not been seen since. In response, the Economic Community of West African States, Ecowas − a trading bloc of 15 West African states which is de facto led by Nigeria – at an extraordinary summit on 30 July, demanded that Niger’s junta stand down by Sunday (6 August) and that the president, democratically elected in 2021, be restored to power forthwith. Failure to comply, they warned, could result in military action. Blanket sanctions on Niger were imposed by its neighbours. In the event, the deadline for the ultimatum came and went without military intervention.

The junta’s policies remain unclear, but its rhetoric so far has been anti-French and pro-Russian. France, the former colonial power, has retained substantial influence across the Sahel and still maintains a garrison in Niger of about 1,500 troops – the US has another 1,000 there. But Russian Wagner mercenaries are thought to be active in the country, having reportedly been engaged in skirmishes with Islamist insurrectionists who are loosely linked to Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. The coup leaders claim that they have been forced to act given the deteriorating security situation in the country. According to some reports, they have asked the Wagner Group for further assistance.

We should recall that President Putin presided over the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg on 27-28 July. That was attended by 17 African heads of state or government. Wagner’s leader, Evgeny Prigozhin, was spotted on the fringes of the summit.

Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa voiced support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Malian military junta leader, Assimi Goïta and Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, whose countries are increasingly reliant on Wagner Group mercenaries, also expressed support for Russia. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki denied the existence of a Russia-Ukraine war and instead spoke about NATO’s war on Russia. Eritrea was one of six countries which voted against a UN motion condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. For their part, President El-Sisi of Egypt and President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa insisted that Russia should reinstate the grain deal.

The coup leaders responded to the threat of military action from the Ecowas bloc by closing Niger’s airspace. On Monday (7 August), acting US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited Niger’s capital, Niamey, for talks with the junta. She subsequently described the talks as “difficult.” President Bazoum had been seen as a staunch ally of the West and a bulwark against Islamist militant influence. Ecowas convened another emergency summit to discuss the Niger crisis for Thursday, 10 August.

The Algerian president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune has warned Ecowas against any military action against Algeria’s neighbour. He fears that Niger could follow Libya and become a de facto failed state ruled by warlords. More concerning still, an invasion by Ecowas could ignite a proxy war between the West and Russia’s clients across the entire region.

Niger might be one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is the world’s seventh largest producer of uranium. About 20 percent of its uranium output goes to France to fuel its fleet of nuclear power stations. The company that operates Niger’s uranium extraction industry is owned by France’s Atomic Energy Commission. But, according to one report, supplies to France have now been halted. Niger also has reserves of oil and gold. Not forgetting that Niger stands in the path of a proposed gas pipeline that will connect Nigeria’s gas fields eventually with the Mediterranean and Europe beyond.

There is, according to the BBC, widespread resentment of France in Niger, which is perceived to have plundered its resources. The former imperial power has also sought to control the monetary policy of those countries which use the CFA franc as their currency. About 40 percent of Niger’s population of just under 25 million live below the poverty line. The country languishes near the bottom of the UN Human Development Index. Since the coup, Russian flags have appeared on the streets of Niamey and there was an attempt by a mob to attack the French embassy.

Russian influence also seems to be growing in two other west African states which are experiencing Islamist insurrections: Burkina Faso and Mali. France has been forced to remove its forces from both these countries. Being friends with Russia, in the view of some African leaders apparently, increases their food security.

At the Russia-Africa summit, Putin announced that Russia could replace Ukrainian grain exports and that he would donate 25,000–50,000 tonnes of grain over the next several months to six Russia-inclined African countries: namely, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Mali, Zimbabwe and Somalia. The latter is currently already afflicted by famine. He also announced that Russia would provide fertiliser stored in Baltic ports.

Preparing for Winter

August may be the hottest month of the year in most European countries, but it is also the month in which our thoughts turn towards the seasons to come.

Europeans approached last winter – that of 2022-23 – with apprehension, given the dependence of many European countries, particularly Germany, on Russian gas supplies to keep warm. In the event, Europe coped well. That was for two reasons. First, the winter was comparatively mild. Second, Europe was able to ramp up imports of liquefied natural gas, especially from the US, remarkably quickly.

The second winter of the Russia-Ukraine war might not be as comfortable as the first. Despite the war, Russian gas has continued to flow through Ukraine into Europe. The EU might want to wean itself off of Russian gas, but it is a case of Saint Augustine’s prayer: Lord, make me chaste – but not yet.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has been able to earn vital cash from transit fees. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, however, Ukraine’s energy minister said that Kyiv is unlikely to renew the gas-transit deal when Ukraine’s supply contract with Gazprom expires in 2024. That would have massive consequences for Germany, which is already in recession.

And what if we get an old-fashioned cold winter?

If the war grinds on into next spring and summer, we can be sure that it will become the main issue of the European parliament elections (6-9 June 2024), as well as of the US presidential election (5 November 2024) in which Mr Trump is still likely to be a candidate. Not to mention the Russian presidential election scheduled for 17 March next year. I’ll have more to say about all that shortly.

Enjoy the summer while it lasts.


I’ve got a flight out of London City in a few hours’ time. City is the only one of London’s five airports that doesn’t fill me with apprehension these days before I fly.

I shall take my window seat and follow the flight along Old Father Thames until the sea, fondly identifying places I know. In my imagination, I shall become Charlie Marlow, the narrator of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as his vessel steams seawards.

Then the aircraft will pivot across Flanders, and I shall think about those war graves. Soon, we shall hug the mighty Rhine. And, before long, we shall glimpse the jagged Alps in all their glory.

Mid-August is my Swiss time.

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *