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.
I do fear this is a slow motion car crash.
The Starving World needs actions, not words, quite why we pussy foot around trying not to upset this latest “small man” dictator is beyond me.
Then you lack imagination. How much are you willing to bet in what he would do if his back was very firmly against the wall?
We don’t put his back against the wall, we just push him back into his own yard and let him stew there. Blast any and all Russians forces in Ukraine, after giving them a warning to leave.
Chase them to the border, but don’t cross it.
Ahh . the keyboard warrior
Better than the keyboard appeaser or Putin-stooge
You may find your approach works when someone parks their car in the street outside your house…yes gasp.
I guess you too would have appeased Adolf Hitler at the expense of the 50 million poor souls who ultimately paid the price, well not me Attila the hilarious. I’d rather back all the other folk in this little corporals camp, to do the right thing than let untold more millions starve. Has history taught you nothing ? are you above poverty and starvation ? Will you sleep well tonight knowing all the suffering this little chap is causing ? Can you even start to begin to imagine the lack of your own imagination, because I can and you really cannot. sleep safe tonight my incredibally ignorant friend.
If you think there is significant support for a land campaign in Ukraine by NATO troops you are totally misinformed.
I think NATO realises that Russia is trying to keep a reserve in case NATO decides to move. I highly doubt Ukraine has faced the best Russia can do. It is facing the best Russia can afford to do without risking its existence. Russia still has to keep an eye on its friend in the east, while having no friends in the west other than a rather shaky Belarus & opposition from an ever increasing NATO (especially now that Sweden & Finland are joining). In an alternative universe, Russia could have been a NATO member. Sad really, but it is what it is.
I’d be amazed if Russia had much decent weaponry left to throw at the fight.
You are right, though, that China could become a threat overnight. But IRL China isn’t that stupid to try and invade somewhere as large as Russia with nuclear weapons. The treat is more subtle and involves ‘friendly’ purchases of nuclear submarine tech etc. As well as ‘helping’ Russia farm vast tracts of land……
I think you will find it has quite a lot left. It just can’t afford to commit it. To take on NATO will take a lot more than has been expended on Ukraine. To hold China in check will take a lot more than has been expended on Ukraine. Putin literally as two tigers by the tail. One in each hand.
The “best Russia can do” is all held back in Moscow, there to protect Putin personally, lest other elements of the military or security services turn against him.
As are you then, if you believe Nato has no stomach for this lattest russian aggresion then think again my cyber friend. think again.
Theres almost zero capability for Nato land invasion of any Russian territory. First Belarus is in the way and Kaliningrad isnt worth anything for the cost. Yes they arent going to repeat Putins mistakes
Airpower is the only option and remember Nato is an alliance so needs complete agreement from its members for an attack that isnt self defence. Mean while Im sure you are reliving the Napoleon era in many other ways as well.
The “Starving world” could start by putting it’s own house in order. There was a time when the USSR could not even feed itself. Now, Russia alone exceeds the grain output of the USA.
Perhaps Zimbabwe could remember how and why it used to be the breadbasket of Africa, instead of the basket case.
Either way, the ability of western military power to open the Black Sea (and more importantly, the Bosphorus) is rightly a matter for international law and in this case Turkey.
Well Fred, since you like to talk about poverty and starvation, it is worth noting that it is only the richest in the world – the West – that are opposing Putin. The rest of the world’s countries, representing 90% of the world’s population, and including the worlds largest democracy, are not even boycotting Russia. In fact, India is happily buying Russia’s oil at a discount. So is China.
The head of the African Union has said that he is “very reassured and very happy” with his exchanges with Putin on the supply of food.
Glad that you are so rich that you can fight for the poor of the world, but I dont think they want your help, they are doing fine.
Every country works in their self interest
Why not just accept sanctions have holes anyway and accept some commodities can continue to flow.
heaven forbid the EU wont have an immediate cessation of gas and oil from you know who- as its not in their interest either
It is in the interests of the EU to move away from Russian energy in long term, especially if Russia does more damage to an aspiring EU applicant.
It’s the rulers of these countries you mentioned, don’t care if their poor go hungry!
Its the price thats the main sticking point and supply next
While that is all true and Zimbabwe could easily feed a lot of countries I don’t see how concatinating two dreadful and entrenched geopolitical situations is going to feed people.
Yes, Zimbabwe should be given aid in return for agricultural reform so it at least goes self sufficient. And yes, it is a sick joke sending wheat to what should be a breadbasket. But it won’t get solved any time soon – until the African tribal politics…….
Which won’t end until tribal politics is replaced with national politics on a friendly level without corruption. Otherwise, no, don’t send the wheat. You are just perpetuating the problem. Yes people will starve. They have been starving for thousands of years. Get over it. Do it right or don’t bother. Or get China to do it for you. Give them 10 years & there will be plenty of wheat (no black Africans though). Take your pick.
Zimbabwe under its previous name Rhodesia struggled to be self sufficient in wheat/maize growing even when the sanctions came in the mid 60s.
Its a tropical country not a temperate one like the major wheat growing regions of the world. South Africa for instance its the southern Cape provinces that are grain growing areas, and maize is from say the Free State province not the border regions of Zimbabwe like Limpopo province
Sure even those levels of the late 60s arent even reached today
Christ, what do we have here then ? I can see a major problem trying to free up the passage of grain through the bosphorus not to mention the mine clearance issues……… Would the RN be able to even begin to cleanse the Black Sea even with all the current MCM’s ships ? Even in peacetime ?
If the U.K. was able to use MCM’s in the Black Sea then so would all of NATO. Together NATO has a big mine warfare capability. But getting rid of the mines that is the relatively easy bit.
The difficult bit is creating conditions that both legally and practically allow mine clearance.
It appears that some mines have shifted position and drifted to other parts, I guess that might cause alarm to all the countries shipping without any action taken.
There is no issue with commercial ships passage through the Bosporus. itself.
Russia and Ukraine were both big grain and fertiliser exporters.
‘I can see a major problem trying to free up the passage of grain through the bosphorus’
I believe the Montreux convention allows warships through the Dardenelles if they are headed to their homeport. Ex Blyth and Ramsey would seem to fit this criteria when they go to the Ukraine. BTW, I saw today that Turkish autourities had arrested a Russian merchant ship accused of carrying stolen grain though I don’t know if this has been confirmed.
Turkey detains Russian ship Ukraine says is full of stolen grain in part of Putin’s plan to use starvation as a weapon (yahoo.com)
Well I hope there’s a grain of truth in that.
Seizure of Russian merchant vessel confirmed. The Turks are now investigating whether the grain is stolen before deciding what to do with it.
No need for nato frigates and cruisers in the black sea. Offer help to Ukraine. Use small boats, ROVs and AUVs and divers to clear the mines. The large Russian missiles in Crimea are not a threat to them.
If the mines are cleared the sea distance along the coast from Odessa to Romanian waters is a little more than 100 miles. River vessels sailing close to shore may be used. If the Russians fire missiles from Crimea, that will be piracy. Large Russian ships won’t risk coming within range of the harpoons, and the raptor cutters can be wiped out by bairaktars and the brimstone missiles you supply.
The grain path can be opened!
Grain is shipped in bulk carriers not ‘river vessels’ This is millions of tons of a granular type shipment which needs both specialised rail and port handling facilities
Please avoid personal attacks when commenting – see our comment moderation policy
Sorry, my bad, just a bit passionate when it comes to mass starvation and uncaring comments, it will not happen again. I’m sure that all the starving nations will now sort their affairs out having read the replies posted yesterday.
Please identify who you are referring to. Hopefully it wasn’t me, but who knows? There is no indent for reference.
Hit refresh & found Fred had handed himself in. Still my point stands, some point of reference is needed for unindented posts.
It might even be easier to ship using the Danube and canals to the Romanian coast, if the Romanians would allow it.
Greenpeace need to make their presence felt in the Black Sea…… Save the Dolphins.
Yes, Dolphins….. apparently they are dying in their hundreds due to naval activity in the Black Sea…
There is this thing called a railway. Grain crops are not grown seaside. Most are delivered to a shipping port via rail. They are trucked to a railhead & then railed from there. This is no different for most large countries, be it Russia, Ukraine, Canada, USA, Australia etc. Ukraine grain railways have been centred on shifting grain to Black Sea ports. While it is less than optimal, they need to be railing the grain to Mediterranean ports. Yes the interconnects are not there in the format you would want. But in my mind, it’s easier to get external civilian support for this than trying to get civilian shipping into Odesa.
Apparently the Ukraine uses Soviet guage while Romania swapped over to Western guage and as we speak have a project running to revivify an old Soviet link from Ukraine to a Danube port. I don’t know why they can’t swap guages rather than unload it onto barges, but I never really understood guage theories.
Problem is that railway wagons have their wheels fixed in place (which causes the gauge problem if theirs doesn’t match yours). It is often possible to build a multi gauge rail line. Narrow gauge usually fits inside standard gauge which fits inside wide gauge. Still it’s expensive, you are using twice the amount of steel. Problem is most countries did their own thing in the beginning. So definitions need national references. It’s only when you got to the border you realised you may have a problem.
Romania never used Russian gauge, their railways were pretty well established before the second world war and becoming part of the Soviet bloc. Same went for Poland
The town in Romania mentioned as the Danube river port is actually right on the border with Ukraine so would have been the russian gauge railhead just a few km. the problem still is reinstatement to the existing Ukraine system
Another city is Vicsani again near the border , but the problem there is transhipment by rail
There is however a single Russian dual gauge line that extends well into Poland, nearly 400Km from the border to Katowice which was built for heavy industry use as the ore mines were in Ukraine
However for every wagon that goes west it must come back again, apparently its a lifeline and a bottleneck
So give up on Odessa and retreat then ?
Who said anything about retreating? As Jon has said, it’s a gauge problem. With shipping containers, you can shift the container to another flatbed via a big forklift or crane, just like you shift one to road transport or onboard or off a ship. Grain railcars are designed to fill from the top & dump unload from the bottom. So it’s not easy to shift grain from one carriage to another (grain ends up all over the ground). Ideally you want to go from the receiving silo railhead to the shipping port railhead. If they fix the gauge problem to at least allow grain carriages to get to an alternative railhead silo to allow bulk unloading & reloading would be better than barges (or alternatively all the way to port, but that could take considerable time – possibly years).
Bless, I have a new friend.
Wish I had one.
13% of grain exports is not the same as 13% of production – more like 2% because most grain is produced and consumed domestically. For as long as anyone can remember, the UK and Europe’s agricultural sectors have struggled with “mountains” and “lakes” of surplus produce, and are now paid by the taxpayer to act as stewards of the environment rather than produce food. So there is huge potential to increase production if needed, easily enough to replace the lost 2%.