Reports from British military intelligence have raised alarming concerns about Russia’s Black Sea fleet potentially planning a naval blockade of Ukraine. The blockade aims to intercept and seize merchant vessels traveling to and from the embattled nation, with a particular focus on disrupting Ukrainian grain exports. This move comes after Russia withdrew from an agreement allowing such exports and launched missile strikes on Ukrainian ports and grain storage facilities.
However, implementing a complete blockade might not be straightforward for Russia. Grain ships departing from Ukrainian ports like Odesa need to navigate to the Bosporus strait in Turkey, accessing the world’s oceans via the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean. The Russian fleet is unlikely to operate too close to the Ukrainian coast due to the risks, as evidenced by the missile cruiser Moskva’s fate last April. Presently, the only Russian vessel acting as a blockade-like presence, the corvette Sergey Kotov, patrols well south of the coast.
Despite the potential blockade, some grain shipments could still evade Russian interference by hugging the southern coast within territorial waters of Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Any attempts by Russia to disrupt these ships in the waters of NATO member nations would constitute an act of war.
While the blockade may not entirely cut off grain supplies, it could still lead to severe restrictions and increased costs for grain importers worldwide. Particularly vulnerable are regions like Africa, where rising grain prices could result in hunger and potential starvation. The ripple effects would extend beyond grain-based foods, impacting the cost of livestock feed and driving up food prices globally, including in the UK and China.
The situation poses significant challenges for Ukraine, but their primary concern is not the lost grain revenues. The country’s economy has already been shattered by the conflict, with a significant portion of GDP allocated to military spending and government debt soaring. Thus, the potential blockade would not be a decisive blow to Ukraine itself.
The blockade’s primary aim seems to be exerting pressure on the world stage. By causing food crises and driving up prices, Russia seeks to weaken Western support for Ukraine and cultivate stronger alliances with Africa and China. The direct impact on Ukraine may be limited, but the global ramifications could be substantial.
Amidst these tensions, potential solutions come into focus. One option involves convoys, with warships from willing NATO member nations escorting merchant ships through the Bosporus to Ukrainian waters. This would guarantee their right of passage on the high seas and any Russian attack on these warships would amount to an act of war against NATO. Convoys have been used before to protect tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, effectively thwarting Iranian attempts to block oil flow.
Another possibility is arming Ukraine with the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), a more powerful version of the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS). The Ukrainians previously used the GMLRS effectively by targeting Russian headquarters, but Russia has since adapted its strategy. The ATACMS could be a game-changer, pushing Russian headquarters deeper into the Sea of Azov and bolstering Ukraine’s counteroffensive efforts.
The global situation requires decisive action, and the world watches closely for any response from Joe Biden and the international community. As tensions escalate, it becomes ever more crucial to find viable solutions and protect vulnerable regions from potential food crises.