A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 19, 2022

How NATO May Break Russia's Black Sea Blockade

The threat posed by Russia to global food supplies is growing as its undeclared blockade prevents ships from carrying Ukrainian grain to the foreign destinations where it is needed. Putin understands that this, perhaps even more than his nuclear arms, is his most powerful weapon.

The situation is serious enough that preliminary discussions have begun on how to evade it. Some grain is being shipped by rail via Poland and other countries. But there is rising demand for NATO naval escorts in and out of Odesa. This might be as provocative as a no fly zone, but as Ukraine's battlefield dominance continues, could become a reality. JL

Lawrence Freedman reports in Comment Is Freed:

In 2019 Ukraine provided 42% of the world’s sunflower oil exports, 16% of corn exports, along with 10% of barley and 9% of wheat. ‘Russia’s pre-meditated war of aggression has exacerbated the global economic outlook with sharply rising food, fuel and energy prices.' Some grain is traveling by train, and the EU plans to create a land corridor to Poland’s Baltic Sea ports. It’s worth considering an escort system for merchant ships to go in and out of Odesa. This would be similar to the escorts provided to merchants in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War. The greater the threat to global food supplies pressure for drastic action will grow. The major naval powers need to be thinking ahead.

From the start of this war there has been natural concern about the difficulties of keeping it confined to two belligerents within defined geographical boundaries. This concern is most often expressed in scenarios in which Vladimir Putin, having seen his ambitions thwarted and with his forces on the run, lashes out in anger, even with nuclear weapons.

While no one dares rules out an act of supreme irrationality from the Russian leader, as I have argued here and in the New Statesman, nuclear use would not solve any strategic problems for Russia, and would create many, many more. Nor has there been any indication that Putin is thinking on these lines: as yet he is not even prepared to escalate by acknowledging that he is actually fighting a war and not just a limited ‘special operation.’ Reservists have been signed up for the war in an almost covert fashion rather than through a full mobilisation. Putin set a ‘red line’ at the start of hostilities, by demanding that NATO countries hold back from direct intervention in the war, and thus far this has been respected. For now NATO is making an impact simply by keeping Ukraine economically afloat and militarily buoyant.

There is, however, another aspect to this war which has received insufficient attention, though it is now slowly coming into focus and where pressure could build for a NATO operation. This is the need to relieve the blockade Russia has successfully inflicted on Ukraine’s southern ports in the Black Sea. This is urgent not only because of the effect on Ukraine’s battered economy but also on supplies of essential agricultural products to the rest of the world. If Russian forces continue to be pushed back, and as the diplomacy to bring the war to a conclusion is stepped up, this will be a critical issue to be addressed, possibly linked to Russian demands for relief from sanctions. If this is not addressed diplomatically then there could be demands on the major maritime powers to mount freedom of navigation operations to break the blockade.

Russia is Losing

Before we consider the war at sea we need to remind ourselves about the state of the war on land, for each influences the other. The end of the second phase of the war is approaching. In late March the Russians sharply changed the focus of their operations away from the first phase in which it had sought to gain control of all Ukraine, at first by taking its capital Kyiv, and towards the Donbas, the area highlighted in Russian rationales for the war, and where it had made early gains. For this second phase they would exploit an apparently strong position to encircle and eliminate the main body of Ukrainian forces based in the region (the Joint Forces) and so complete the occupation of a defined and defensible chunk of Ukrainian territory. This territory was already being prepared for eventual incorporation into Russia in its administration, language, currency, education, and so on.

This effort has failed, and while Russian forces are continuing with some probing offensives, these have largely been blocked. The campaign map does not look much different to that of a month ago. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said that Ukraine ‘can win this war’, while the UK’s Defence Intelligence, having noted that the Russian army has lost a remarkable third of its original ground combat force, observed that it was now ‘significantly behind schedule.’ This is a story of shrinking objectives. When the second phase started analysts pointed to Dnipro as a likely objective. Then the focus was on Slovyansk, and now it is Severodonetsk, Luhansk’s second city, much closer to the main body of Russian forces. The main aspiration may be to complete the occupation up to the administrative borders of the Luhansk Oblast, even though they may not be able to do the same for Donetsk.

This is turning into a major battle, and costly for both sides. There is already fighting on the outskirts of Severodonetsk. The Ukrainians have blown up a bridge connecting it to Rubizhne, which Russia holds. When Russian forces tried to get across the Siversky Donets river on 11 May, they suffered a major setback when a tactically inept crossing was caught by the Ukrainians. This led to over 485 soldiers (out of 550) men being killed or wounded and the destruction of 80 items of equipment.

Even if Russian forces eventually take Severodonetsk, confirming their hold over Lushank, their limited capacity to conduct major manoeuvres may still lead them to adopt a more defensive posture. The most significant recent development in recent days (other than the inevitable but much delayed end of the resistance in Mariupol) has been the retreat away from positions around Kharkiv, the victim of terrible Russian bombardments. This is generating new options for the Ukrainians including threatening concentrations of Russian troops with their own envelopment. Meanwhile Ukrainian forces have been making slow but steady progress, picking away at Russian positions close to Kherson, a city which the Russians were able to take without much of a fight early in the war.

The priority for Russia may therefore be shifting to consolidating its position, holding off new Ukrainian offensives while it tries to replenish its forces until at some point it can renew its offensive, or even seek a political settlement based on cease-fire lines which leave it holding a significant chunk of Ukrainian land. This leads to the assumption, expressed recently by Avril Haines, Director of US National Intelligence, of a protracted war, dragging on into next year and beyond, adding to Europe’s – and the rest of the world’s - economic and political stresses and strains as well as those of the two belligerents.

This prospect helps explain the increase in high-level calls, including from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, speaking to Putin, and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, in his first direct talks with his Russian counterpart, about the need for a cease-fire. It is hard to see why the Ukrainians should accept one, with Russia still occupying much of their land, and the agreed NATO position remains that the decision on war aims and peace deals is for Kyiv. Yet the desire to bring the war to an end is palpable even if Putin is still holding on for some tangible gains.

Ukraine would prefer not to be rushed into its major offensive, which is still under preparation. This will be more demanding than defensive operations, so the risks will shift. And they will be seeking to recover a substantial amount of territory. Yet Ukraine still has reasons for confidence. Its army has consistently outfought the Russians. Their tactics have played to their strengths and knowledge of the terrain. They are now being well supplied by the West, including with vital modern artillery, while Russia’s stocks are depleted, with old and not always reliable equipment. On paper there are sufficient Russian forces which, if competently led, could make life difficult for Ukrainian forces. This understates, however, the problem of sustaining the morale of an army which has achieved little since the first days of the war, has lost large numbers of men and equipment, and is now as likely to being going backwards as forwards. There have been reports of units refusing to join the fray, and of individual soldiers looking for ways out and avoiding front line duties. I can understand the caution when projecting forward to a Ukrainian victory but it is hard to see where the Russian motivation comes from.

Naval Warfare and Snake Island

While the land war grinds on, a different sort of confrontation has been underway at sea. Far less attention has been given to the maritime dimension because this has seemed a more unequal contest and at least at first the Russian Navy made the most of its advantages. Its Black Sea Fleet began the war with some missile corvettes and frigates, Kilo-class submarines, and an old cruiser Moskva as the flagship. These were joined by amphibious ships from the Baltic and Northern Fleets.

The Russian move to annex Crimea in 2014 was in part motivated by its desire to avoid any challenge to its naval base at Sevastopol. In the process of securing this base it also acquired three quarters of the Ukrainian Navy. At the start of the war in February the Ukrainian Navy was still small, with only 5,000 sailors, and consisting largely of patrol vessels. They were soon targeted by the Russians, and one, the Solviansk, which had been gifted by the US to Ukraine in 2019, was sunk in the first week of March. By closing the Kerch Strait, which connects the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea, and stationing ships off Odessa and other Ukrainian ports, Russia was able to mount an effective blockade. This has been maintained. It has also used ships and submarines to launch missile strikes against targets in Ukraine.

B. J. Armstrong sums up Russia’s naval successes:

‘The establishment of command of the sea was followed rapidly by using the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea for operations affecting events ashore. The Sea of Azov was closed off and Ukrainian ports were blockaded, sealing off both military and commercial traffic. The Russian navy used the Sea of Azov to reinforce operations ashore and contributed to the brutal and ongoing assault on Mariupol. And the Black Sea Fleet fired hundreds of missiles in a wide-ranging bombardment that contributed to both tactical effects but also the indiscriminate destruction of civilian targets. Regardless of the legitimacy of the Russian aggression, the legality of the maritime operations, and clear movement toward war crimes, through the lens of naval strategy and in dramatic comparison to the failures of the Russian army, the Russian navy did its job effectively.

Yet not all has gone its way. Under the Turkish Straits regime, set up under the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey can close the Straits to belligerent warships. It has already done this to Russian warships, reducing Russia’s ability to reinforce its position in the Black Sea. In addition, while amphibious landings early on supported the attack on the coastal city of Mariupol Russia’s efforts to ferry in extra forces for the battle were dealt a blow when Ukrainians sank the amphibious ship Saratov while she was offloading at a pier in Berdyansk. And although an amphibious assault was expected at some point against Odessa one never materialised, in part because Russian forces were unable to get close enough in their ground advance. Most seriously on 13 April 2022, Ukrainian forces using home-manufactured Neptune anti-ship missiles, sank the Russian flagship, Moskva.

This has encouraged Russian caution. They must worry about other ships becoming vulnerable to attacks involving aircraft, drones and anti-ship missiles, possibly launched from relatively small craft. This is one reason why the tiny Snake Island (some 30 miles away from the Ukrainian coast) has become important. It was seized by Russia at the start of the war, providing a famous moment when Moskva told Ukrainian soldiers to give themselves up ‘to avoid bloodshed and needless casualties. Otherwise, you will be bombed.’ To this the response was ‘Russian Warship, go  f**k yourself.’ It was believed that the 13 Ukrainian soldiers on the island had been killed. It soon transpired that they had been captured.

Ukraine got its eventual revenge when Moskva was sunk. In its absence the island’s role became more important. If the Russians could establish electronic warfare and air defence systems upon on it they could compensate for the loss of the Moskva, helping to maintain the blockade, and potentially supporting operations to join up with the Russian garrison in the breakaway enclave of Transnistria in Moldova, which is close to Odessa, although this now seems to be well beyond Moscow’s capabilities.

Recently there has been a battle underway for Snake Island. Ukraine has released evidence of attacks on anti-aircraft weapons, a support ship, two landing craft, and a Russian helicopter as it landed Russian marines. For its part the Russian Ministry of Defence claimed that they had thwarted a Ukrainian attempt to take the island and shot down aircraft (pro-Russian social media has been full of stories about how terrible this was for Ukraine). In practice it is difficult to see how any force could feel safe on such a small and isolated space. On 12 May Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine's defence intelligence chief, explained that whoever holds Snake Island controls ‘the surface and to some extent the air situation in southern Ukraine’ and can ‘block the movement of civilian vessels in all directions to the south of Ukraine at any time.’ While he acknowledged that it might be challenging to retake the territory he was more confident that it could be denied to the Russians.

The Impact of the Blockade

So long as the blockade continues, real problems are caused not only for Ukraine but for the rest of the world. During the first month of the conflict at least eight merchant vessels were attacked in Ukrainian ports and the Black Sea. One, the Helt, sank off the coast of Odessa having likely struck a mine, killing two crew. Many merchant vessels are stuck in Ukrainian ports unable to leave. Insurance premiums for ships planning to sail in the area are now prohibitive. On 20 April the International Maritime Organization reported that 84 ships with 500 crew were trapped (other crew had been repatriated).  

This has serious consequences. In 2019 Ukraine provided 42% of the world’s sunflower oil exports, 16% of corn exports, along with 10% of barley and 9% of wheat. The UN Food Agency reported on 6 May that nearly 25 million tonnes of grain are stuck in Ukraine. While Ukraine is a major source of agricultural products to Europe, which Moscow may be pleased to see suffer, it also plays a major role in supplying countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Algeria. Price hikes have reached as high as 50 percent in some developing countries. This is the sort of inflation that can trigger serious unrest. Meanwhile while Russian forces have been accused of destroying storage facilities and stealing farm equipment, it is alleged to have sent a cargo of 27,000 tonnes of grain to Syria, out of total of 440,000 tonnes stolen from occupied Ukraine.

When hosting EU Council President Charles Michael on 9 May, Volodymyr Zelensky emphasized Odessa’s importance to Ukraine’s agricultural exports and by extension to global food supplies. ‘This is a blow not only to Ukraine,’ he said. ‘Without our agricultural exports, dozens of countries in different parts of the world are already on the brink of food shortages. And over time, the situation can become – frankly – frightening.’ Michel confirmed this dire situation, adding: ‘We need a global response.’ Ukrainian farmers are now preparing to harvest the crops they planted last winter but lack storage space. On 14 May, G-7 Ministers stated that:

‘Russia’s unprovoked and pre-meditated war of aggression has exacerbated the global economic outlook with sharply rising food, fuel and energy prices. Combined with Russia blocking the exit routes for Ukraine’s grain, the world is now facing a worsening state of food insecurity and malnutrition. This is having devastating consequences for some of the most vulnerable people and rising costs also make it harder for humanitarian and development agencies to deliver assistance to those in greatest need. This is at a time when 43 million people were already one-step away from famine.

Can anything be done to ease the crisis? Some grain is already travelling by train, and the EU plans to create a land corridor to Poland’s Baltic Sea ports, but this is a slow process, and can barely mitigate the developing global food crisis. The IMO has argued that a maritime corridor should be created for stranded ships to be able to leave, but the mines make this problematic.

On 24 April the head of the world’s largest ship manager urged NATO to provide naval escorts for commercial vessels passing through the Black Sea:

‘We should demand that our seafaring and marine traffic is being protected in international waters. I’m sure NATO and others have a role to play in the protection of the commercial fleet.’

The was proposed recently by Admiral James Stavridis, formerly a senior NATO commander,

It’s worth considering an escort system for Ukrainian (and other national) merchant ships that want to go in and out of Odesa. This would be similar to the Operation Ernest Will escorts provided to merchants in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. The vast Black Sea is mostly international waters. NATO warships are free to travel nearly wherever they want, including into Ukraine’s territorial waters and its 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Conceding those waters to Russia makes no sense. Instead, look for them to become the next major front in the Ukraine war.    

The issue was anticipated last summer when the UK sent HMS Defender to the Black Sea and its extension, the Sea of Azoz, on a freedom of navigation mission, which certainly annoyed the Russians, who fired warning shots. The Deputy Russian Foreign Minister  then insisted that next time bombs would be dropped ‘not only in its path, but also on target.’

Protecting commercial shipping is by no means a simple option. The escorts would need to include minesweepers. Accompanying warships can also suffer from mines. There would need to be unanimity in NATO to authorize the operation, and Turkey in particular would need to sign up. Because of the Treaty of Montreux it has an effective veto as it would need to authorize NATO warships moving through the Straits from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, and it is not always predictable on such matters . Most importantly, the view up to now has been that this would be an unduly provocative move, subject to the same misgivings that led NATO to reject calls for a ‘No-Fly Zone’ above Ukraine earlier in the war, as it could lead to a direct confrontation with Russian naval forces. Yet, while prudence might be understandable, in purpose and conduct this would be quite different. The principle of freedom of nagigation is important, in the Indo-Pacific region as well as here. These would be in international or Ukrainian waters and there would be no legitimate reasons to interfere with peaceful passage by commercial vessels. The Russians have not even declared a formal blockade. The accompanying force would not be looking to initiate any direct naval engagements. Nonetheless, for now NATO appears wary about taking this forward.

There have been suggestions that it would make more sense for something similar to be organized under the aegis of the United Nations, but that could be vetoed by Russia. A broad coalition of countries, including non-NATO members, could take on the task, but it would still need serious naval capabilities. The issue of enabling Ukraine to export its agricultural produce will be high on the agenda of any general cease-fire talks, and would soon be linked by Russia to discussions on relieving economic sanctions. It will also want to address the problems with its own overseas trade. Most major shipping companies have suspended their operations to and from Russian ports. Western countries have banned Russian flagged, owned, and operated ships from calling at their ports.

But if the war does drag on this is an issue that will not go away. The greater the threat to global food supplies pressure for drastic action will grow. The major naval powers need to be thinking ahead.


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