The deal to open up Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, brokered by the UN and Turkey, is expected to facilitate the much-needed export of several million tonnes of grain and other food products, and potentially ease an international food crisis.
However, less than a day after the deal was signed, Russia undermined international confidence by conducting missile strikes on the port of Odesa.
Since the beginning of the Ukraine war, commercial ships have not been able to operate safely to and from Ukrainian ports due to a Russian blockade and mines along sea lanes.
The deal, signed on July 22, is significant for Moscow on the diplomatic front. Russia is trying to present itself as benevolent since the agreement is considered by the UN and humanitarian actors as a ground-breaking positive step.
Five months into the war, analysts and officials acknowledge Russia’s strategic failure and its growing inability to increase pressure on Ukraine. But Moscow, which is running out of options, still has a card to play in the Black Sea.
Putin is now trying to portray Russia in a positive light by agreeing on a safe corridor for the export of agricultural products. Whether and how this materializes in the coming weeks remains to be seen.
Before commercial shipping can resume, several issues have to be resolved, most notably in regard to clearing mines and the overall safety of commercial shipping operations.
Under the agreed deal, commercial ships will be monitored under a joint coordination center with representatives from the UN, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia. This gives Moscow some form of legitimacy and is potentially a diplomatic victory for Putin.
Nonetheless, the grain deal remains crucial. It is the best option to alleviate the world food crisis. The onus is now on Russia to honor its pledge, but given Moscow’s poor record of truth-telling and respect for international law, trust in the deal happening remains fragile.
Black Sea blocked
In the initial phase of the war (February-March 2022), Russian forces occupied Snake Island and deployed its Black Sea Fleet, by far the strongest regional naval force, to secure control of the northwestern Black Sea.
With its operational control of the northwestern Black Sea, Russia could use Kilo-class submarines (using Kalibr cruise missiles) in support of the air campaign against Ukraine. Russia could also threaten to launch an amphibious assault on Odesa keeping Ukrainian forces tied up on a possible defense.
However, in April and May 2022, the operational situation at sea shifted in favor of Ukraine: the sinking of the cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea fleet, exposed an important weakness of the Russian navy in terms of air defense. It showed Russian forces were not safe when operating close to the Ukrainian coast, due to Kiev’s land-based anti-ship missiles.
That said, the Russian navy has been able to prohibit civilian traffic to and from Ukraine by posing enough danger to maritime traffic so that it was too risky for shipping companies to operate in the area.
From an operational perspective, sending naval forces to escort civilian shipping to and from Ukraine is feasible. However, such a deployment would likely violate part of the Montreux Convention and have potential to alienate Turkey. This could also result in combat with Russian naval forces and further escalation.
Alternatives that do not require Russia’s consent and cooperation consist of using (smaller capacity) ports on the Danube River and ports in Romania (requiring road transportation) or delivering grain by train to the EU and then to other ports for global reach. This might not be a sustainable long-term option.
The main consequence has been restricting Ukraine’s ability to export grain. In addition to creating a world food crisis, this is seriously affecting the Ukrainian economy.
As the war drags on, Russia is finding it difficult to mobilize more land forces and has a shortage of land-attack missiles. And after losing control over Snake Island, Moscow is unable to fully control the approaches to Odesa (although the Russian navy still poses a substantial threat).
These factors can partly explain Moscow’s change of strategy regarding the blockade. What’s more, as the food crisis drags on, Russia is risking losing political and diplomatic credibility in Africa and Asia as its responsibility for the global food crisis becomes obvious.
So far, Russia has been able to exploit the food crisis to its advantage. Putin tried to blackmail the west into easing sanctions in exchange for facilitating agricultural exports. At the same time, Moscow has managed, through its usual propaganda, to limit criticisms from developing countries outside Europe.
Political and diplomatic confrontation between the West and Russia is at a turning point. Russia is trying to compensate for its strategic failures with a diplomatic success.
Its membership in the coordination center grants it some legitimacy, while it is also trying hard to downplay its wrongdoings. But the West has made it clear that Russia is responsible for the current food crisis and will be held “accountable for implementing the deal.”
It is crucial for the West to oppose Putin’s blackmailing strategy and to stay firm in regards to sanctions (which are having some effect). It is also crucial to counter Russian propaganda in “swing states” such as India, Pakistan, Brazil and Indonesia.
Missile strikes on Odesa must be condemned and alternative ways of exporting Ukrainian grain also have to be pursued. But at the same time, the West must do everything possible to make the grain deal work.
The food crisis is affecting millions of people and is a humanitarian and diplomatic battle that the West cannot afford to lose.