Mars, the god of war, is a fickle master. Until now, the big story out of Ukraine has been the failure of the Russian onslaught. But the “orcs” — as the Ukrainians call Russian troops — have finally learned some lessons from the shellacking they took during the battles of Kyiv and Kharkiv. Rather than trying to advance on multiple axes across the whole country, the Russian army has now focused its attack on a small portion of Donbas, where it has achieved local superiority in manpower and firepower.
With merciless artillery fire (“They’re just raining down metal on us,” one Ukrainian soldier told The Post), the Russians have made slow but steady advances. On Tuesday, they were reported to control “around half” of the front-line city of Severodonetsk. If it falls, the Russians will have secured, at high cost, essentially all of Luhansk. That will put them on track to take all of Donbas, although it remains to be seen if they can hold their gains in the face of a Ukrainian counteroffensive that could use the multiple launch rocket systems that the Biden administration is sending. (The Ukrainians are already striking back in the Kherson region, which had been depleted of Russian troops during the Donbas offensive.)
Even if more of Donbas is temporarily lost, it does not threaten Ukraine’s viability as a state. More menacing, in many ways, is Russia’s blockade of the northern third of the Black Sea. This has done terrible damage to Ukraine’s economy and to the entire world.
Ukraine produces nearly 50 percent of the world’s sunflower oil, 12 percent of its corn and 9 percent of its wheat. Ukrainian farmers (when they are not hauling captured Russian tanks) are still growing their crops but now are having trouble getting their products out of the country. An estimated 20 million tons of wheat are stuck in Ukraine. That crop needs to be exported urgently to make way for a new one that will be harvested this summer. The European Union has been trying to arrange alternative routes via road and railroad, but none of those methods can make up for the loss of seaborne trade.
Russia has used famine as a weapon before — Joseph Stalin starved to death at least 3.9 million Ukrainians — and now it is doing so again. This time, however, the potential victims are not in Ukraine itself. Millions around the world in countries such as Lebanon and Egypt face a food crisis unless Ukrainian wheat can reach the market.
Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has offered to lift the blockade in return for a lifting of sanctions on Russia. This is obviously a bad deal — and one that the Biden administration has rightly rejected. The West cannot lift any sanctions until Putin stops his illegal invasion.
Retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former NATO commander, advocates using a multinational flotilla to escort cargo ships carrying Ukrainian wheat. His model is Operation Earnest Will, the U.S. Navy operation in 1987 and 1988 (in which he participated as a junior officer) that escorted oil tankers through the Persian Gulf in the face of Iranian attempts to close the waterway.
He is right that “Earnest Will kept the oil flowing and took away leverage from the Iranians,” but it came at a cost. After an Iranian mine damaged a U.S. frigate, the U.S. Navy launched its largest surface action since World War II, destroying two Iranian surveillance platforms, sinking two Iranian ships and severely damaging another. A U.S. warship also accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner with 290 people aboard.
The success of any convoy operation in the Black Sea would depend on a similar willingness to sink Russian aircraft, submarines or surface ships that interfere with the mission. But President Biden has shown no desire to go toe-to-toe with the Russians — who, unlike the Iranians, have nuclear weapons.
That means that if the Black Sea blockade is to be lifted in the short term, the Ukrainians will have to do so themselves. Ukraine has already sunk the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet and badly damaged or destroyed three Russian landing ships and five patrol boats, but Russia is still estimated to have about 20 naval vessels, including submarines, in the Black Sea.
Ukraine has started to receive U.S.-made Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Denmark. Once operational, they can make life hell for Russia’s Black Sea fleet. But Ukraine will need still more weapons before it can once again send shipping from Odessa, the only major Black Sea port still under its control. Kyiv will require anti-mine and anti-submarine capabilities along with longer-range missiles capable of striking the Russian naval base in Sevastopol in Russian-occupied Crimea. Unfortunately, so far, Biden has refused to send rockets with ranges greater than roughly 40 miles.
If the United States and its allies don’t want to run the risk of opening the Black Sea with their own fleets, they need to provide Ukraine the capabilities to do so. The world can’t sit by and do nothing as the Kremlin again employs famine as a weapon.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.
The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.
In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.
The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.