Before Russia invaded Ukraine it was considered the ‘breadbasket of Europe’ responsible for about 13% of global grain exports. Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea is preventing this grain from reaching markets all over the world causing global food shortages and price hikes. Various politicians have called for naval intervention and here we look at the situation and the options for resolving this crisis.
Against the grain
In 2020, Ukraine was the 5th largest exporter of wheat in the world with its biggest customers Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Lebanon. It also provides half of the world’s sunflower and cottonseed oil with a value that exceeds that even of wheat. The sudden unavailability of these staples has contributed to a spike in world food prices being felt in every nation. This is an especially serious issue for poorer countries that were already struggling, potentially leading to malnutrition and political unrest. Around 20 million tonnes of grain harvested last year is estimated to be trapped in storage elevators and warehouses across Ukraine. Further harvests will soon take the total beyond 40 million tonnes, exceeding storage capacity. Grain theoretically will keep for some years but can be quickly ruined by rodents, insects and moisture if not stored in perfect conditions.
One of the key objectives of Russia’s invasion has always been to increase its access to the Black Sea and Sea of Azov by seizing more of the southern coast and ports of Ukraine. Although it looks unlikely, should the Russians push further west and take Odesa they could severely diminish the nation’s importance and permanently cripple its economy by sealing off access to the sea.
A few indiscriminate Russian attacks on merchant ships in the early stages of the war quickly halted all shipping operating from Ukrainian ports, arguably one of the few real strategic successes achieved by Russia. With ships unable to deliver goods through the ports, all weapons and resources entering Ukraine from abroad must now come by road, rail or air through the west of the country. More significant is the damage to the Ukrainian economy, dependent on exports of wheat, sunflower oil as well as iron ore and steel.
The loss of foreign currency forces Ukraine to rely more on the financial generosity of other nations to underwrite the costs of weapons and the aid it needs to sustain a beleaguered population. Major efforts have been made to export overland to Baltic ports but this is much less efficient and expensive and in the opposite direction to the majority of its customers. There is also not nearly enough transport infrastructure, storage or port capacity in Moldova or Romania to make much difference. Instead of exporting roughly 5 million tons of grain a month, this fell to 200 thousand tons in March.
The blockade is another useful lever for Russia on the wider global commodity markets. It has already used the threat to cut off natural gas supplies to try to influence Europe and but control of grain supplies has an even bigger effect. There are alternative energy sources besides gas but grain is fundamental to the food supply that everyone needs.
Having invaded a nation, murdered civilians and embarked on a campaign of rampant destruction, stealing is perhaps lesser on the list of Russian war crimes but it can’t be ignored. There is plenty of evidence that Russia is taking grain from the areas of Ukraine it now controls and transporting it via the occupied port of Berdyansk as well as Kerch and Sevastopol. Since Russia is a major exporter of grain anyway it is easy to pass off the shipments as their own. Merchant ships have been observed conducting deceptive sailing practices, turning off AIS trackers when in the northern Black Sea or Sea of Azov before delivering cargoes to Turkish and Syrian ports. How Ukraine’s allies respond to this theft presents a dilemma as any action that further reduces the meagre exports of grain from the region will only add to world food shortages. At the same time, many (but not all) nations are enforcing trade sanctions both as punishment and in an attempt to reduce Russian foreign earnings used to fund its war.
On 30th June, the Russians said after weeks of delays the first shipment by sea has been sent from Berdyansk “heading toward friendly countries” and was being escorted by units of the Black Sea Fleet. Mine clearance was required to reopen the port and its facilities had been damaged by Ukraine attacks and the explosions that destroyed the ammunition ship RFS Saratov in March. Efforts to move the wreck have been reported in the last week.
The good ideas club
Similar to the well-meaning but unrealistic demands for a ‘no-fly zone’ over Ukraine, there have been several calls for friendly navies to forcibly reopen the Black Sea shipping lanes to allow exports to resume. Oleksiy Goncharenko – MP for Odesa recently called for a UN resolution backed by intervention from the Royal Navy. It is interesting to note there is still a touching belief in the supreme power of the RN in some quarters. In May Foreign Secretary Liz Truss had high-level discussions about forming a “coalition of the willing” to provide a protective corridor from Odesa through the Bosphorus. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov complained on 3 July that the UK government is “trying to create conditions and pretexts for the Royal Navy’s entry into the Black Sea to control the process of releasing grain from the ports“. Unfortunately, for the four main reasons outlined below a military solution is almost entirely unworkable.
1 Locked out
NATO warships cannot enter the Black Sea as Turkey has closed the Dardanelles using the provisions of the 1936 Montreux Convention. This permits Turkey to close the waterway to warships during time of war and also applies to Russian ships, preventing it from sending vessels from the Mediterranean to reinforce its Black Sea Fleet (BSF). The convention only permits non-Black Sea states to send ships into the Sea for up to three weeks and limited to a total aggregate tonnage of 45,000 tons. Warships over 10,000 tonnes, submarines and aircraft carriers are also not permitted. Effectively the Montreux Convention would have to be torn up for NATO forces to have any hope of matching Russian firepower.
As it stands there is no way to send warships to escort Ukrainian merchant ships without Turkey changing its position. Although a NATO member, Turkey has to consider its long-term relations with Russia and is unlikely to permit warships friendly to Ukraine to pass through the Straits while preventing Russian warships from doing the same. Breaking the terms of the convention would also undermine the rules-based international order that western nations are making every effort to preserve.
Merchant vessels continue to pass through the Dardanelles exporting Russian hydrocarbons and stolen agricultural products. It may be tempting for NATO navies to stop these ships but that would be a breach of international law and could trigger Russian reprisals against innocent merchant vessels, further adding to supply chain chaos and global price rises.
2 Fought out
Even if Turkey permitted NATO warships to enter the Black Sea then combat with the Russians would almost certainly follow. Assuming the rules of engagement were designed to avoid clashes if possible, warships defending a convoy of merchant ships are at a huge disadvantage if they must await attacks without being allowed to strike the launch platforms and bases of the enemy. Any NATO warship operating in the northern Black Sea would come within range of multiple Russian airforce bases and land-based anti-ship missiles. Inevitably NATO warships would end up firing on Russian aircraft, warships or submarines which would likely trigger a much more dangerous global conflict that would make the issue of Ukrainian exports seem trivial.
Despite its lack of naval forces, Ukraine has managed another modest maritime success by forcing the Russians off Snake Island. This tiny piece of rock has been heavily fought over during the war as it has strategic value, commanding the air and sea approaches to Odesa. Since the sinking of the cruiser RFS Moskva, which was the primary area air defence asset of the BSF, Snake island also offered an alternative site on which to place radars and air defence missiles. Besides destroying boats attempting to deliver weapons systems and resupply the garrison, Ukraine began a bombardment from the mainland using long-range Ceasar howitzers supplied by the French. Laughably claiming their withdrawal was a “goodwill gesture”, the Russians left on 30 June as the island become untenable. This small victory does reduce the threat to merchant shipping slightly but despite the setbacks it has suffered, the BSF remains the dominant force.
3 Mined out
Ukraine has embarked on a significant mine-laying effort, primarily to deter amphibious assaults on its southern coast. Together with the increased threat from NATO-supplied land-based anti-ship missiles and Russian weakness this deterrent has proved effective up to now. Mine warfare is a cheap and simple way to complicate naval planning but can be imprecise. It would appear old Soviet-era moored mines have been employed and several have broken free and been found on beaches as far away as Romania and Turkey.
Russia has said that if Ukraine removes the mines it will allow vessels out of the ports. Russian promises have limited value and Ukraine would be wise to keep most of the mines in place apart from a few safe and clearly marked channels for merchant ships on approach to Odesa. Either way, a significant mine clearance effort would be needed to reassure merchant vessels operating around the southern coast of Ukraine. Russian merchant traffic is keeping well to the south and has not suffered any casualties so far, although a Russian landing craft D-106 was destroyed, killing 3 sailors when hit it a stray mine off the port of Mariupol on 30th June.
Removing mines is a lot more difficult than laying them, even if their locations have been carefully charted. Before the war Ukrainian had begun the process of acquiring ex-RN minehunters HMS-Blyth and HMS Ramsey. They are still at Rosyth with no way of getting them into theatre, even if they could be protected. Turkish or other NATO mine hunters would probably need to clear and verify safe routes and the MCMVs would, in turn, need to be protected if the operation was contested by Russia.
4 Priced out
This crisis is also another reminder of how the world depends on merchant shipping. No matter what political or military solution might be arrived at, the ultimate show-stopper could be how shipping insurers assess the risk. Shipping companies are not entirely risk-averse as it comes with the territory but the maritime insurance and reinsurance industry, based largely in London is more cautious. Losses from the war already stand at about $5Bn, besides ships damaged in the conflict, 84 ships have been stuck in Ukrainian ports since February along with a considerable volume of sea-bound cargo trapped on land.
Sky-high insurance premiums could mean there are no shipping companies willing to send their vessels into the Black Sea. Many of the world’s seafarers are exploited and underpaid and are unlikely to accept sailing into a war zone without solid guarantees and increased pay. Very few countries have a significant domestically-flagged merchant fleet with seafarers ready to sail into danger if called upon to serve their nation. In addition to the threat of mines or interdiction by Russian forces, the Ukrainian ports remain vulnerable to air and missile strikes which could endanger the ships and crews while alongside and destroy the infrastructure needed to embark the cargoes. Of the two main unoccupied ports, Mykolaiv is very close to the front line and residential areas of Odesa were been hit by random missile strikes even in the last week.
This crisis is very unlikely to be resolved militarily and exports from Ukraine are only likely to restart if some kind of agreement can be reached with the Russians, possibly in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions. Despite the loss of a cruiser, and its failure to hold Snake Island, the threat of the Black Sea Fleet and the Montreaux convention are still enough to ensure Russia holds the trump cards. The unique geography and legal framework of the Black Sea, which has historically been seen as a disadvantage to Russia are actually helping its cause.
In early June, Russian and Turkish officials discussed a deal that would allow Russian forces to inspect inbound ships for weapons. Turkish ships would escort the merchant vessels provided safe channels were opened through the minefields. Kyiv said that it would de-mine a naval corridor in return for guarantees that Russia wouldn’t attack its ports. No further progress has been made on this issue. For now, Russia’s stranglehold over Ukrainian exports may be of more strategic value to its war effort than any deal on offer, despite the crocodile tears Moscow may shed over world food shortages.