Russia’s Black Sea Blockade Will Turbocharge the Global Food Crisis

Lithuania’s call for a naval coalition to break Russia’s stranglehold on Ukraine’s exports hasn’t been taken up—yet.

By , , and
Smoke rises after an attack by the Russian army.
Smoke rises after an attack by the Russian army.
Smoke rises after an attack by the Russian army in Ukraine’s strategic Black Sea port of Odesa on April 3. BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images

As Russia’s ground war in Ukraine falters, its naval vessels have made strides in the Black Sea, seizing control of Ukraine’s coastline in a way that allows them to launch strikes at targets inland and tighten a blockade on Ukraine’s exports.

Now, Western governments are scrambling to find ways to break the blockade and ease the strains on the global commodities and agricultural markets rocked by the war. Ukraine, referred to as the “breadbasket of Europe,” feeds some 400 million people around the world and is a top grain supplier to dozens of developing countries, including politically unstable Middle Eastern and African countries that have seen food prices skyrocket since Russia first launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February. 

The clock is now ticking, as the first harvest of the season arrives in the next two months. A continued Russian blockade would prevent much of the tens of millions of tons of grain currently trapped at Ukraine’s ports from ever leaving.

As Russia’s ground war in Ukraine falters, its naval vessels have made strides in the Black Sea, seizing control of Ukraine’s coastline in a way that allows them to launch strikes at targets inland and tighten a blockade on Ukraine’s exports.

Now, Western governments are scrambling to find ways to break the blockade and ease the strains on the global commodities and agricultural markets rocked by the war. Ukraine, referred to as the “breadbasket of Europe,” feeds some 400 million people around the world and is a top grain supplier to dozens of developing countries, including politically unstable Middle Eastern and African countries that have seen food prices skyrocket since Russia first launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February. 

The clock is now ticking, as the first harvest of the season arrives in the next two months. A continued Russian blockade would prevent much of the tens of millions of tons of grain currently trapped at Ukraine’s ports from ever leaving.

“We need to get the ports open, operational. Otherwise, we are going to have catastrophe on top of catastrophe,” warned David Beasley, head of the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), this month. “It’s hard to believe how devastating this is really going to be on the poorest of the poor around the world.” 

Lithuania, a NATO and European Union member country, has proposed forming a naval “coalition of the willing” to safely escort blockaded Ukrainian cargo ships full of the country’s grain supplies past Russian warships and through the Black Sea to access maritime trade routes. It’s unclear whether other NATO countries would sign on to this plan. (The Biden administration so far hasn’t weighed in.) Although most NATO countries have sent military supplies to Ukraine, they are wary of getting their forces directly involved in the conflict—even if just to escort cargo ships—lest it spark an incident that could provoke a NATO-Russia confrontation.

Any such plan would also have to be approved by Turkey, a NATO ally that controls the gates of the Black Sea and the number of naval vessels that can pass through it, according to the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits. 

At the same time, EU countries are mapping out alternate routes to ship Ukraine’s grain supplies overland through the West via rails to ports elsewhere in Europe. But this plan is logistically difficult and more expensive; Ukraine’s railroads use different gauges than most EU countries, creating a choke point at Ukraine’s border. 

“There’s plenty of incentives to try to get it out of the country; it’s just that the costs are so high,” said Joseph Glauber, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. “The system isn’t set up to move kind of upstream; it’s all set up to move down to those ports.”

It also likely can’t make up for the amount of prewar exports that flowed out of Ukraine from its Black Sea ports. “Pretty much everything that is exported out of Ukraine normally is exported by ship out of those ports along the Black Sea and, to a lesser degree, in the eastern ports along the Sea of Azov, which also is part of the Black Sea,” Glauber said. 

Despite dire warnings of the food crisis to come, Russia has ignored calls from top United Nations and Western officials to end the blockade, instead pinning the blame on Western sanctions for exacerbating the food crisis. 

Some NATO countries have begun stepping up efforts to support Ukraine’s navy in a bid to help it punch through Russia’s naval blockade. Denmark is sending long-range anti-ship Harpoon missile systems to Ukraine, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced on Monday, a move that could endanger the Russian warships currently blocking up Ukraine’s ports. The Russian Navy has already faced significant setbacks, including the sinking of its flagship, the Moskva, in April. 

But it’s unclear whether these new defense assets could be enough to fully roll back the Russian naval blockade or ease the number of Russian strikes on the key Ukrainian port city of Odesa to safely revive Ukraine’s export supply lines. Furthermore, the cost of maritime shipping insurance on the Black Sea has skyrocketed as a result of the war, potentially dissuading merchant ships from traveling to Ukrainian ports even if cracks appear in the Russian naval blockade. 

Ukraine’s wheat, a key food staple for many countries, is harvested twice per year. The crops ready to be harvested now could not easily or quickly be replenished if the Russian blockade stops this harvest from being exported. Last year, Ukraine exported about 20 million metric tons of wheat—around the total amount of wheat experts predicted will be available for harvest this year.

The blockade of Ukraine’s ports could have ramifications for global food supplies for years to come. Despite the war, Ukrainian farmers were able to plant an estimated 80 percent of their usual tillage this spring, raising the prospect that two seasons’ worth of grain exports could now be tied up by Russia’s blockade. 

“We speak about the previous harvest. But let’s imagine that you will also have problems with the next one,” said Vladyslav Rashkovan, alternative executive director at the International Monetary Fund, who previously served as the deputy governor of the National Bank of Ukraine. “And this will [cause] higher food prices and a shortage of food in the most low-income countries.”

It’s not just Ukraine’s wheat either. Taken together, Ukraine and Russia account for nearly a third of global barley production and half of the world’s sunflower oil exports. Additionally, Russia and neighboring Belarus, which has been an accomplice in orchestrating Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war, are among the world’s top producers of potash, a key fertilizer ingredient for the agriculture industry. Both countries are now facing damaging international sanctions and export bans in a bid to hamper their ability to fund the war. 

“Over the past 30 years, ever since the end of the Soviet Union, agricultural productivity in Ukraine, Russia, and frankly all of the ex-Soviet countries has just soared,” said Steve Mathews, a senior vice president at Gro Intelligence, a software company that uses technology to track global agriculture and climate trends. “People came to depend on that production, and to have it suddenly shut down the way it has been, it causes a lot of problems.”

The loss of exports from principal suppliers is having an indirect effect on other potential exporters, who are now stockpiling their homegrown grains as they brace for more food shortages. India, for example, recently banned wheat exports as prices rose, and the country experienced a record-breaking heat wave. The trend is further inflating grain prices. Wheat prices are forecast to increase by more than 40 percent this year, reaching an all-time high in nominal terms—that is, unadjusted for inflation—according to an April World Bank report. 

As long as the blockade continues, experts warn that its impacts could spill into Ukraine’s upcoming harvest. If Ukraine’s silos remain full and the country isn’t able to secure enough temporary storage facilities, the country’s next crop could be in storage limbo.

“We could see significant food loss with the next harvest because there’s no place to store it, no way to move it,” said Ertharin Cousin, a distinguished fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former executive director of the WFP. If that happens, she said, “Now you’ve lost not one but two harvests coming from Ukraine.”

FP reporter Amy Mackinnon contributed to this report.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Christina Lu is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

Mary Yang is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

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