The outlook for Kyiv seems grim.
The grain deal has expired, and Russian strikes have battered Ukrainian ports and destroyed around 200,000 tonnes of Ukrainian grain. Kyiv’s widely hailed spring counter-offensive started late, then gained little ground: two months in, it's made minimal progress.
To top it off, Russia recently passed laws enabling the Kremlin to quickly draft up to 300,000 more troops, underscoring Moscow’s superior human resources. It is easy to start thinking Russia has gained an edge, particularly if the offensive stalls out, if the war becomes a years-long slog, if Kyiv’s backers lose spirit as a recession starts to bite or the late-2024 US presidential vote returns Donald Trump to the White House.
Gamed out today, most scenarios of the war’s end would likely result in Kyiv accepting something resembling the current status quo as the new shape of Ukraine. But a closer look offers reason for hope for Ukraine. Start with this past weekend’s peace summit in Saudi Arabia.
Diplomats from nearly 40 countries, including several that have not taken sides, gathered in Jeddah to discuss Ukraine’s vision for peace without Russian involvement. China, India, South Africa and Indonesia sent representatives, as did the US. The event may not have resulted in a grand peace plan, but it showed a willingness to engage from the Global South and even some Russian allies, undermining Moscow’s narrative that only western countries are sympathetic to Ukraine.
It’s also just the start of a broader campaign. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged his ambassadors and diplomats to leverage all possible tools and full efforts to persuade allies and those on the fence that Russian defeat is the only route to lasting peace.
Next month’s UN General Assembly in New York will present Ukraine with another chance to convince the world, and that will be followed later in the autumn with a Ukraine-hosted summit to lay out and gain backing for its 10-point peace plan.
Just as Ukraine appears to be beefing up its international support, Russia’s leadership may be more vulnerable than it’s been in decades. The one-day rebellion of Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner paramilitary force, represented the first major domestic military challenge to President Vladimir Putin, and its denouement — without a significant military response — left many wondering about the military’s loyalty to the Kremlin.
The direct challenge from Mr Prigozhin, a staunch nationalist who was until recently a long-time friend of Mr Putin, was soon followed by another, from another proven Russian patriot. Igor Girkin, a former military commander who led a battalion in Donetsk in 2014, was arrested after calling the President a “nothingness” on his popular pro-war blog.
With Mr Prigozhin in exile and Girkin and others behind bars, Russia’s pro-war bloggers have started splintering, with some criticising the government even more while others question which side they’re on. When even the staunchest supporters are bickering, you know there’s trouble.
This might explain why Mr Putin has embarked on a campaign-like tour in recent weeks, visiting places such as Dagestan and Kronstadt for photo ops with children and families. It is a sea change from the president's isolation during the Covid pandemic and the early days of the Ukraine war.
After the Prigozhin trouble dealt a blow to the image of complete unity, the intended message is clear: Mr Putin is still beloved, and still in charge. Meanwhile, Russia is also contending with inflation and economic issues, as the rouble has lost more than 40 per cent of its value this year.
At the same time, Kyiv has in recent weeks significantly expanded the range of its attacks. With last year’s sinking of the Moskva, Ukraine pushed Russian naval forces away from its Black Sea shores. But last week, Kyiv went much further, showcasing its reach and maritime capacity with an unmanned sea vehicle assault that disabled a Russian landing vessel in the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.
The next day, a Ukrainian naval drone struck a US-sanctioned Russian oil tanker off Crimea. Sunday brought reports of another drone headed for Moscow and strikes on two bridges in southern Ukraine near Crimea, the Chonhar bridge and a bridge in Heniches'k.
These strikes, which seem to be a direct response to recent Russian attacks on Ukrainian ports and grain facilities since the suspension of the grain deal, have highlighted Russia’s own export vulnerabilities. Continued Ukrainian attacks have the potential to curb Russian Black Sea shipping and even temporarily shutter some ports, further hobbling the Russian economy.
This very concern could drive Moscow back to the negotiating table on the grain initiative. Mr Putin is expected to visit Turkey this month to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey, of course, was the driving force behind the initial agreement, and Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently said Mr Erdogan "is the only leader who can get Putin back to the deal".
Will the Kremlin beat a retreat on grain even as its troops hold the line against Ukraine’s counter-offensive? If so, it would be a clear non-battlefield win for Kyiv, and perhaps an early sign of a meaningful shift in momentum.