Ukraine: Tiptoeing around a wider tragedy

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By John J. Metzler

As Vladimir Putin’s war continues against Ukraine, there’s now a grim acceptance of tragedy; targeted civilians, wrecked cities and the threat from Russia’s nuclear weapons.

But as the conflict churns on, few people have noticed the mixed signals that formerly blockaded port cities have cautiously reopened averting a famine but conversely that fighting dangerously near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear power plant, could through pure stupidity, create a horrific nuclear accident.

Back during 1986 the mega-Soviet screw-up at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine, created a regional humanitarian disaster which through incompetence and cynical coverup massively spilled radiation, which still lurks in the forests of Ukraine and Belarus.

Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear power plant / Video Image

Today we are tiptoeing around a wider tragedy with active Russian military forces based at the Zaporizhzhia plant, Europe’s largest nuclear facility where fighting continues!

Following up on a successful diplomatic deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey to reopen blocked Ukrainian ports such as Odessa, so that needed fertilizers, grain, and wheat can be shipped outside to world markets, mostly in the developing world, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres returned to Ukraine to pursue a double-edged diplomatic strategy. First; convince the Russians not to use the nuclear plant as a military base. Equally, get international  IAEA inspectors into the complex to monitor what’s really going on.

Speaking in Lviv with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the UN chief stated clearly, “I remain gravely concerned about the unfolding situation in and around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia…Common sense must prevail to avoid any actions that might endanger the physical integrity, safety or security of the nuclear plant.”

Guterres added bluntly, “We must tell it like it is, any potential damage to Zaporizhzhia is suicide.” He added, “The area needs to be demilitarized.”  Intense behind the scenes diplomacy by the UN secretary general now may have led to a compromise by Moscow.

French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to gain a surprising win here when Vladimir Putin said he would allow the IAEA nuclear inspectors at Zaporizhzhia. But before we cheer too loudly, recall the stillborn fate of IAEA monitors in Saddam’s Iraq twenty years ago and the constant cat and mouse games regularly played to deceive them.

As significantly the UN/Turkish deal, the Black Sea Grain initiative, reached recently to reopen Ukrainian ports and allow food shipments to the world, seems to be bearing fruit.  Secretary General Guterres proudly stated, “In less than one month, 21 ships have departed from Ukrainian ports and 15 vessels have left Istanbul for Ukraine to load up with grain and other food supplies.”

More than 769,000 metric tons of grain and other food produced by Ukrainian farmers is making its way to world markets. In Istanbul Turkey, the UN chief witnessed efforts that a World Food Program (WFP) vessel Brave Commander is carrying grain and foodstuffs to people suffering from drought in the Horn of Africa.

Significantly wheat prices dropped by almost 8% following the signing of the UN agreements.

At the same time Russia’s economy is stagnating due to sanctions and the high cost of the Ukraine war. Russia’s Central Bank predicts the GDP shrinking 4 to 6 percent this year.

Foreign firms have already cut or curtailed operations. Half of Moscow’s foreign exchange reserves remain frozen.  Even Russia’s bloated energy revenues face shortfalls either from Western sanctions or ironically Putin’s spiteful and punishing natural gas cutbacks to European countries such as Germany where an 80 percent energy cut is planned.

So now the fighting slogs on into September. The war’s summer stalemate combined with Russia’s economic downturn caused by Western sanctions have likely crippled Putin’s abilities to score an outright military victory in Ukraine. Whether the Ukrainians currently have the military momentum to counter-attack and seriously erode earlier Russian gains remains problematic too though possible.

While the Balkan wars in the 1990’s following the breakup of former Yugoslavia produced mass carnage, refugee flows and battles not seen in Europe since the Second World War, we tend to forget the current Ukraine war has reached far higher intensity and danger of regional conflict not experienced at a level since WWII.

Europe remains mired in a deep political funk this Summer. Still this is 2022 not 1942.

So, can there be UN sponsored ceasefires to stop the carnage and just maybe outline the path to future peace talks? Aug. 24 marked the 31st anniversary of Ukraine’s renewed independence from Russia. Now six months into the war will overdue political maneuvering replace the lethal military maneuvering tearing Ukraine asunder?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]