Russia’s military assault on Ukraine may have stalled in the Donbas, but its ability to prevent millions of tonnes of grain from leaving Black Sea ports is proving far more successful, with ominous consequences for Kyiv and the global food crisis.
A de facto naval blockade means that Ukraine, traditionally one of the world’s top crop producers, has for months been unable to export most of the 20mn tonnes of grain stored in its silos. This has helped push prices to record highs and left 100mn more people unable to meet their food needs, according to the IMF.
With the grain stores full to bursting, it also means there is little space to keep the coming harvest and even less incentive for farmers to sow next year’s crop.
Edward Lucas, a Russia expert at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said Moscow was “weaponising starvation” by keeping up the Black Sea blockage despite huge international pressure, in what he called a “Hunger Games” scenario.
“Vladimir Putin’s most powerful weapon is not in his military arsenal. It is the threat of migration and unrest provoked by disrupting food supplies to Africa and the Middle East, ”he added.
There appears to be no clear way to solve the problem. The military solution, defense officials and analysts said, would be for western warships to test the blockade with “freedom of navigation” patrols and escorted merchant convoys through the Black Sea – similar to what the UK did last year when it sailed a destroyer through Crimea’s disputed waters.
But that would require agreement from Turkey, which controls naval access through the Bosphorus straits. There is also the risk of escalation – Russia claimed its jets bombed the path of the British destroyer, although the UK has rejected this account and denied shots were fired.
“Nobody wants a war but I fear Putin might,” one western intelligence official said of the prospect of a wider confrontation. “If there’s a flawed compromise now, the war will eventually resume and the final outcome is likely to be much worse.”
Diplomacy has become bogged down, and officials say talks between Ukraine and Moscow, brokered by the UN and Turkey, to reopen Black Sea merchant shipping lanes have struggled to make progress.
“The Black Sea comes up a lot in our conversations,” Julianne Smith, US permanent representative to Nato, told reporters this week. The Russian blockade was “creating food security issues globally. The conversations continue, not only at Nato but [also] the UN and we’ll continue to grapple with this challenge, ”she said.
At stake are supplies from the “breadbasket of the world”, with Ukraine limited to moving about a third of its usual monthly 5mn tonnes of exports by rail or road. Kyiv has also accused Russia of stealing 500,000 tonnes of grain.
Russia has denied using food as a weapon, countering that western sanctions on payments, insurance and shipping prevent it from selling its grain. As a result, it would not let Ukraine ship grain until western sanctions are lifted.
There are also operational obstacles. Russia’s standard position at the UN is that it will provide “safe passage” for Ukrainian grain shipments if Ukraine first demines its ports. But defense officials and analysts said this approach was a fig leaf for inaction.
Russia has said it will need to inspect these ships to make sure they do not carry armaments or contraband but Ukraine is against sole Russian checks.
“It’s easy to imagine Russia finding an irregularity in the paperwork and confiscating the ship and sending it to Sevastopol,” said Marcus Faulkner, a naval expert at the department of war studies at King’s College London. “One way around that would be to have ships jointly inspected by neutral UN officials. But there’s no precedent for that and it would take a long while to work out. “
A more fundamental problem is that the merchant ships would require a de facto no-fly zone operating around them to prevent accidental missile or air strikes from either side. “But that would require Russia to cede its military control of the north-western Black Sea, and it is not going to agree to that,” Faulkner added.
There is also the thorny issue of the mines that Ukraine has placed around its ports to deter a Russian amphibious attack. Increasing supplies of western anti-ship missiles to Ukraine make such a Russian assault unlikely, analysts say.
Turkey’s foreign minister suggested last week that demining may be unnecessary, as most of the mines’ locations were known so Ukraine could quickly thread safe sea lanes around them.
However, this does not allow for drifting mines, which would require minesweepers that Ukraine lacks – bringing the problem back to square one and the need for naval escort.
Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London, said that “Russia’s insistence on the demining essentially punts the ball in Ukraine’s court and allows Russia to blame the west for the food shortages”.
The result is an impasse built on mutual mistrust that officials and analysts say Russia has little incentive to unblock anytime soon.
EU foreign ministers will discuss efforts to unlock Ukraine’s grain exports at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday. Officials say talks are becoming increasingly frantic as the July wheat harvest approaches, and possible land routes via Poland or even Russia-allied Belarus are deemed insufficient or geopolitically untenable.
“We’re talking about an enormous amount of grain that can only rationally be exported using huge ships by sea,” a senior European official said. “Russia has asked for sanctions to be lifted, which is out of the question,” they added.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels