Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Opening Up Ukraine’s Sea Routes Is Tough but Critical

With ports cut off, the world is going hungry.

By , the European culture correspondent at Tablet.
A man holds wheat grains in Ukraine
A man holds wheat grains in Ukraine
A man holds wheat grains in a grain storage facility on a farm near Izmail, in Ukraine's Odesa region, on June 14. Oleksandr Gimanov/AFP via Getty Images

The Russian military strategy of cutting Ukraine off from its access to the sea in order to decapitate its economy is now set to cause a worldwide famine. The export of Ukrainian grain provides food security for more than 300 million people around the world. Now, millions of tons of grain are sitting in Ukrainian grain elevators or the cargo holds of dozens of foreign shipping vessels stuck in Ukrainian ports. The embargo on the export of Ukrainian grain by the Russian Black Sea Fleet represents a serious food security threat. It is imperative that the world act.

My hometown of Odesa—a multiethnic, multicultural hub of regional trade—is Ukraine’s main port, including two satellite port cities within 30 miles of the city proper. None of these ports is operational thanks to a Russian-imposed blockade of Ukrainian trade through the Black Sea. The Ukrainians have also mined the entrance to the ports in order to keep Russian ships from landing marines on its picturesque beaches. The Russian Black Sea Fleet has now been pushed more than a hundred miles away from the city—safely out of reach—by the efficiency of Ukrainian and British-provided anti-ship missiles.

The Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, followed by the scorched-earth takeover of the industrial port city of Mariupol after Russia’s invasion this February, has left Ukraine with few gateways unto the sea. The recapture of Snake Island by the Ukrainian armed forces last month has allowed the Ukrainians to reopen the smaller ports along the Danube River estuary to grain shipments—and 35 smaller foreign vessels have docked at those ports over the last week. Those shallow river ports do not have anywhere the necessary capacity, however.

The Russian military strategy of cutting Ukraine off from its access to the sea in order to decapitate its economy is now set to cause a worldwide famine. The export of Ukrainian grain provides food security for more than 300 million people around the world. Now, millions of tons of grain are sitting in Ukrainian grain elevators or the cargo holds of dozens of foreign shipping vessels stuck in Ukrainian ports. The embargo on the export of Ukrainian grain by the Russian Black Sea Fleet represents a serious food security threat. It is imperative that the world act.

My hometown of Odesa—a multiethnic, multicultural hub of regional trade—is Ukraine’s main port, including two satellite port cities within 30 miles of the city proper. None of these ports is operational thanks to a Russian-imposed blockade of Ukrainian trade through the Black Sea. The Ukrainians have also mined the entrance to the ports in order to keep Russian ships from landing marines on its picturesque beaches. The Russian Black Sea Fleet has now been pushed more than a hundred miles away from the city—safely out of reach—by the efficiency of Ukrainian and British-provided anti-ship missiles.

The Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, followed by the scorched-earth takeover of the industrial port city of Mariupol after Russia’s invasion this February, has left Ukraine with few gateways unto the sea. The recapture of Snake Island by the Ukrainian armed forces last month has allowed the Ukrainians to reopen the smaller ports along the Danube River estuary to grain shipments—and 35 smaller foreign vessels have docked at those ports over the last week. Those shallow river ports do not have anywhere the necessary capacity, however.

In negotiations, Russia has insisted that future exports of Ukrainian grain pass through the occupied and nearly leveled port of Mariupol. This kind of blackmail is obviously unacceptable to both Kyiv and the international community.

There have been numerous attempts to negotiate a humanitarian corridor for the grain trade over the last several months. These have been hosted by the Turkish to no avail, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently visiting Turkey for intense and fruitless negotiations on this issue. Some observers have called for a NATO naval mission to run the blockade. However, doing so would clearly bring NATO into the conflict against Russia.

A new proposal made by the British Parliament’s Defence Committee chair, Tobias Ellwood, could change the calculous for the West. Ellwood, who met with the military governor of the Odesa region as well as Ukrainian Naval Commander Oleksiy Neizhpapa earlier this week, proposes the passage of a United Nations General Assembly resolution to open up the shipping of grain by essentially removing the city from military affairs.

An international armada as well as support vessels to escort international cargo containers would be assembled under the auspices of the U.N. and would provide safe passage for international cargo shipping. Doing so would relieve pressure on the Ukrainian economy as well as helping prevent starvation in vulnerable countries across Africa and Asia. “It is time for leadership and international coordination. Ukraine is the breadbasket for Europe and beyond, and Odesa is ground zero, so it is in the interests of the international community to see this critical port reopened,” Ellwood told me after leaving the office of the Ukrainian naval commander.

To be sure, there are serious technical difficulties impeding an international U.N.-flagged humanitarian fleet from intercepting the Russian blockade. Any operation would require a U.N. resolution that would have to pass the Security Council, where Moscow could veto it, to face a vote in the General Assembly. That’s especially tricky because the operation would not be flagged as a NATO operation but would in essence be carried out by NATO naval assets.

Whether done with U.N. blessing or not, any NATO operation would have to take place in close coordination with the Turkish government. Ankara controls access to the Black Sea through the Bosphorus. After the Russian invasion, the Ukrainians asked the Turkish to block off more movement of warships into the Black Sea. The Turkish government complied with the request three days after the start of the Russian campaign. The Turks currently have to give humanitarian permission for naval vessels to pass through the straits, a clause mandated under the 1936 Montreux Convention, which allows Ankara to deny passage to military vessels. A U.N. resolution, however, could override the convention. No alternative scheme without international support currently seems feasible.

Romanian and Bulgarian Black Sea naval assets would need to be included in any operation while NATO planes flew overhead in order to secure the shipping lanes and to deter Russian attacks. The port of Odesa has been heavily mined to prevent the landing of Russian marines on its beaches, which brings additional difficulties. The de-mining of the Odesa harbor would require bringing in specialized ships through the straits—though Ukrainian military sources have informed me that the Ukrainians are slated to receive a pair of these from the British later in the year. Doing so could also leave the city exposed and would create the potential for a Russian naval invasion if no other military ships were in sight.

Neizhpapa, the head of the Ukrainian fleet, told me in his office in his Odesa earlier this week, “We know where the minefields that we have placed are, and we can take those down. However, we are not aware if the Russians have conducted minelaying operations close to the potential ‘green’ humanitarian sea lanes.” The Russians are also known to possess sea mines with Ukrainian markings seized at a Ukrainian naval base in Crimea. There is concern among Ukrainians that those mines with Ukrainian markers could be used for a false flag operation. Neizhpapa also explained that while the Ukrainian navy could provide security close to its own coast, there was also the issue of providing it down the coast for civilian shipping.

Another persistent problem is that of insurance. “Someone at the state or international organization level has to insure the grain shipments, because commercial shippers will not touch those kinds of insurance rates,” explained Alan Riley, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

The navies of Romania and Bulgaria—both NATO members—may not be large enough in scale to cover the area, though NATO forces would be capable of providing air support for their ships. “The question of whether the Russian navy would stand down is an open one, but it is most likely the case that they would,” Riley said. “Do they want to start a conflict with NATO when it is simply carrying out a humanitarian campaign to ship grain out to prevent starvation? The world would certainly be on the side of NATO in such a conflict.”

A temporary solution to the grain crisis is feasible if the international community gathers coherence, but in the long term only the defeat of Moscow can guarantee the ultimate safety of commercial shipping across the Black Sea.

Vladislav Davidzon is the European culture correspondent at Tablet, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, and the author of From Odessa With Love.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.
U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.

Russia’s Defeat Would Be America’s Problem

Victory in Ukraine could easily mean hubris in Washington.

Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.
Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.

Russia’s Stripped Its Western Borders to Feed the Fight in Ukraine

But Finland and the Baltic states are still leery of Moscow’s long-term designs.

Electricity pylons are shown under cloudy skies during rainfall near Romanel-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sept. 15.
Electricity pylons are shown under cloudy skies during rainfall near Romanel-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sept. 15.

Europe’s Energy Crisis Is Destroying the Multipolar World

The EU and Russia are losing their competitive edge. That leaves the United States and China to duke it out.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.

With Winter Coming, Europe Is Walking Off a Cliff

Europeans won’t escape their energy crisis as long as ideology trumps basic math.