Why the battle for the Black Sea is vital for Ukraine and the world

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Why the battle for the Black Sea may be the most important showdown in the war — for Ukraine and for the world

In April, crowds in Kyiv waited in line, some for more than four hours, to purchase a special edition stamp issued by the Ukrainian post office depicting a solitary soldier flipping the bird at a naval vessel in the distance. The stamp commemorated one of the iconic (if somewhat embellished) stories of the first day of the war in Ukraine, in which one of the border guards defending Snake Island, a small rock outcropping in the Black Sea, replied to the Russian cruiser Moskva’s demand that his men surrender with the now-immortal line: “Russian warship, go f--- yourself.”

The incident took on greater significance two months later when the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, was sunk by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles.

The ongoing battle for Snake Island is more than just a meme. It’s a key facet of the larger battle off the southern coast of Ukraine. It’s a front where — the sinking of the Moskva notwithstanding — Russian forces have had an easier time accomplishing their strategic objectives than their counterparts on land. Given the strategic and economic importance of shipping lanes in this area, the battle for the Black Sea may also be the key fight when it comes to Ukraine’s struggle to keep its battered economy afloat. And it’s not an exaggeration to say it could directly impact the lives of millions of people around the world.

The blockade

When the invasion began, it appeared that one of Russia’s goals was to take the entire southern coast of the country, from Mariupol in the east through Odessa in the west to the Romanian border, cutting off Ukrainian access to the sea. That didn’t happen: The Russians have had their hands full in eastern Ukraine, and for now Odessa is under fire but in little immediate danger of conquest. However, via naval power, the Russians have effectively turned Ukraine into a landlocked country.

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Russia had an advantage in the Black Sea from the start. Prior to 2014, both countries maintained naval fleets in Crimea under a treaty signed in the 1990s. When Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces annexed the Crimean Peninsula, they also took over about 75 percent of Ukraine’s fleet, leaving it reliant on a “mosquito fleet” of mostly small patrol boats to defend its southern coast.

In the early days of the current war, Russia’s navy moved quickly to enact a blockade of the Ukrainian coast. It closed off the Kerch Strait, which connects the smaller Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. The important Sea of Azov port cities of Berdyansk and Mariupol have since fallen to Russian forces. Some 20 Russian naval vessels including six submarines are also patrolling the southern coast.

Further west, Russian warships and the forces now stationed on Snake Island are also enforcing a blockade on Odessa, Ukraine’s largest seaport. Ukrainian forces have been fighting to retake the now-iconic outcropping, hoping to prevent the Russians from setting up surface-to-air missile capabilities there.

Adding to the danger are hundreds of sea mines that both sides placed off Ukraine’s coast in the early days of the war. Many of these mines have become unmoored and are floating into open waters, imperiling shipping.

The result is that, even though Russia has not formally declared a blockade, that’s the current reality. “No one’s going to take a chance of going in there right now, either running astray of mines or the Russian navy,” Sal Mercogliano, a former merchant mariner and shipping historian, told Grid. Even if a shipping company were willing to take the risk, insurance rates are skyrocketing, making travel to Ukrainian ports prohibitively expensive. At least 80 merchant ships are stuck in Ukrainian ports, and at least 10 have been attacked.

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A few ships have been moving along coastal routes between Odessa and the Black Sea’s outlet to the Danube River at the town of Izmail. In theory, this could allow Ukraine to ship goods as far west as the Netherlands via Europe’s inland waterways. Unfortunately, Izmail also lies within artillery range of Snake Island.

Economic impact

The effect of international sanctions on Russia’s economy has gotten more attention, but the damage done to the country where fighting is actually taking place has been far more profound.

The World Bank projects that Ukraine’s economy will contract by up to 45 percent this year. Some of this is pure physical destruction: The Kyiv School of Economics estimated that as of the beginning of May, the war had caused $94 billion in infrastructure damage. Then there’s the lost economic output of the 6 million Ukrainians who have left the country, and the roughly equal number who have been internally displaced.

But when asked about the first thing the international community could do to support Ukraine’s economy, Natalie Jaresko, the country’s former minister of finance, answered “unblock the ports.” Prior to the war, Black Sea shipping accounted for half of the country’s total external trade and 90 percent of its trade in grains including wheat and sunflower oil. Ukraine is the world’s fourth-largest grain exporter, and losses could top $6 billion. “There’s about 20 million tons sitting in storage that has to be exported to make room for the new harvest,” Jaresko said. “Otherwise, we know something’s going to rot.”

Critical as food is, it’s not the only commodity affected by the maritime blockade. Ukraine produces around half the world’s supply of the neon gas used to produce semiconductor chips. Ukraine is also a major producer of the wire harnesses used in European cars’ electrical systems.

All of these goods have traditionally left Ukraine by sea.

The shutdown of Ukraine’s most important trade route has left the country heavily dependent on foreign aid. The good news for Ukrainians: They are receiving quite a bit of aid. The $40 billion economic assistance package passed by Congress last week includes $8.76 billion in economic assistance. But these funds are neither sufficient nor sustainable in the long run.

Shipping analyst John Konrad said Russia’s blockade is a reminder of the still-critical role of shipping in the global economy. “We have a kind of global ‘sea blindness,’” he told Grid. “We think everything can just be airlifted out. It can’t. Grain is too heavy and bulky. And it would be extremely expensive to truck it all.”

The best available alternative to shipping, for the moment, is rail, but that presents its own complications. Red tape, logistical challenges and equipment shortages have at times left thousands of train cars loaded with grain and other commodities sitting at Ukraine’s borders. The biggest problem involves the rails themselves: Ukraine’s railways use a Soviet-era gauge that is wider than those of its neighbors, meaning goods must be reloaded onto new trains as they cross borders. Romania is currently working to refurbish a disused Soviet-era rail line to facilitate trade with Ukraine.

The European Union is exploring ways to move more goods in and out of Ukraine over land, and in the long term, the war may spur investments in the kind of infrastructure needed to make that happen. But in the short term, as the war rages, Ukraine’s economy is choking and there are few appealing alternatives to the sea.


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What can be done

Is there any way around the blockade? Jaresko, the former finance minister, favors international naval escorts to protect merchant ships in the Black Sea, as was done to protect shipping from piracy off the coast of Somalia about a decade ago. But a number of political issues make this difficult.

Early in the war, Turkey, which controls access to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean via the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, triggered a 1936 treaty known as the Montreux Convention, which obligates it to cut off access to the sea to naval ships during wartime. Controversially, Turkey is interpreting the convention as applying to all ships, including NATO vessels, not just the belligerents in this war. However, the convention allows naval ships based in the sea, such as Russia’s Black Sea fleet, to move about and return to their Black Sea bases. And many Russian vessels were already there anyway. So the Russian navy effectively has free rein.

And as with other proposals to provide Ukraine with direct protection, such as a no-fly zone, NATO countries will be reluctant to put their sailors in a situation where they might get involved in direct combat with the Russians.

Instead, Ukraine’s backers are considering doing the same thing they’ve done for the land war: Provide Ukraine more firepower to fight the blockade themselves. It was announced this week that Denmark would be delivering a ground-based Harpoon anti-ship launcher and missiles to Ukraine, in order to help break the blockade. These missiles, which cost about $1.5 million per round, have a range of almost 200 miles.

Ukraine has also been using its domestically built Neptune anti-ship missile, thought to be the weapon that sunk the Moskva. The U.S. reportedly provided targeting assistance for that strike. (The Pentagon denied a Ukrainian military official’s tweeted claim that the U.S. is “is preparing a plan to destroy the Black Sea Fleet.”)

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These weapons could make life very difficult for the Russian ships patrolling the Black Sea coast. And the Ukrainians have already destroyed a number of Russian landing craft, complicating plans for amphibious assaults.

The problem is that this is one front in the war where the strategic dynamics clearly favor the Russians. They don’t need overwhelming naval superiority. They just need to make the region too dangerous for international shipping.

Mercogliano suggested that if the sea war escalates, it could involve the Russians striking Ukrainian merchant ships attempting to leave the sea via the Danube. There have also been reports of Russian merchant ships carrying stolen Ukrainian grain to Syria. These could come under fire from the Ukrainians. This could start to resemble something like the “Tanker War” between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s. “The danger becomes that the Black Sea becomes much like the Persian Gulf of the 1980s,” Mercogliano said, “where both sides start targeting each other’s vessels and neutral ships.”

The consequences

Critical as it is for Ukraine, the effects of the blockade are being felt globally via disruptions to the international food supply, particularly in food-vulnerable countries in the Middle East and Africa that were heavily dependent on Ukrainian grain. Ukraine grows enough food to feed 400 million people around the world, at a time when prices were already on the rise. World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley warned last month, “Millions of people will die because these ports are blocked.” Or as Jaresko put it to Grid, “what Putin has done is declare war against the world’s poor.”

The battle for control of the Black Sea has gotten less international attention than the fights over territory on land. One could argue it’s the front of this war that matters most for the rest of the world.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.

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Ukraine