Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports: weapons against looming hunger?

Status: 05/13/2022 8:20 p.m.

Because Russia is blocking Ukrainian ports, an international food crisis is looming. How to bypass the blockade? Or is it only possible with more weapons, as CDU politician Kiesewetter asks?

By Silvia Stöber,

“Currently, 25 million tons of grain are stuck in the Ukrainian port of Odessa. This means food for millions of people around the world, which is urgently needed, especially in African countries and the Middle -East”. With these words, Secretary of State Annalena Bearbock referred to the international food crisis looming as a result of Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports. G7 ministers discussed how to break this impasse.

Silvia Stober

The Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), David Beasley, also warned on Twitter: There is a risk of agricultural collapse in Ukraine and famine worldwide. “The ports need to be reopened and it needs to be done now.”

Thanks to a fertile black earth soil, Ukraine is one of the most important grain suppliers in the world. In 2021, Ukraine was the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wheat after Russia, the United States, Canada and Australia, and the third-largest for barley and corn, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. food and agriculture.

Cereals are one of Ukraine’s main export products. 90% of exports were transported around the world through Black Sea ports until mines and the Russian Black Sea Fleet blocked access. Attacks on the port city of Odessa, with its millions of tons of grain stocks, are fueling fears there that Russian forces could surround, besiege, starve and destroy the city like Mariupol. Signs of this can also be seen in the statements of the Russian army, according to which the entire Ukrainian coast must be taken and the Russian-speaking citizens of Transnistria, which belongs to neighboring Moldova to the west, must be “protected”.

Negotiations with Russia “unrealistic”

First, there is the question of a peaceful solution through negotiation and diplomatic pressure. However, during the meeting of G7 foreign ministers, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that Russia was not willing to open the ports. Ukraine wants to continue negotiations, “but Russia prefers war to negotiations”.

CDU defense politician Roderich Kiesewetter said“Of course, diplomatic negotiations with Russia should not be left out, but they are unrealistic. We know that Russia has no interest in diplomatic negotiations.” Rather, it was Russia’s interwar goal to completely cut off Ukraine’s access to the sea.

Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir accuses Moscow’s leaders of using hunger as a weapon of war. Not only does it want to “eliminate a competitor”, but it also wants to wage an “economic war” whose goal is to “appropriate” the property of the farmers. Russia is “stealing” and “stealing”, Özdemir said, following statements by Ukrainian leaders that Russia is looting grain stores, bringing agricultural products into its own country, destroying them or even selling them to allies.

Tedious and dangerous ground transportation

Alternative transport routes via rivers, roads and rails to neighboring countries to the west are currently being explored. Among other things, the European Commission wants to facilitate the handling of goods from Ukraine and find storage capacities for agricultural products in EU countries. Initially, for one year, no import duties will be levied on goods from Ukraine.

Kiesewetter considers transport by land to be “very dangerous”. Indeed, Russian armed forces repeatedly target infrastructure in the west as well, and a siege of Odessa would make transportation out of the city impossible.

Transport is also only possible to a limited extent for logistical reasons, according to Kiesewetter, who recently visited Ukraine with Union faction leader Friedrich Merz. Railroad cars and trucks can only carry a fraction of the amount that cargo can carry. They are also required for other transport, for example military goods. Also, the rails in Ukraine have wide gauge dimensions and the trains have to be upgraded to standard gauge at the border, which takes time.

Cargo ships under military escort?

Some experts see the Russian Black Sea Fleet so weakened after the sinking of the flagship “Moskva” that they assume they can no longer enforce the blockade. French political advisor François Heisbourg, for example, suggests sending merchant ships to Odessa, if necessary with NATO air and sea escort. With Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, three countries bordering the Black Sea are NATO countries.

In mid-March, Turkey blocked the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles for warships in accordance with the Montreux Agreement, so no Russian warships can enter the Black Sea either.

However, Kiesewetter assesses the chances of breaking the blockade as “very limited”. “In practice, escorting ships by NATO ships, for example, would be comparable to the establishment of a no-fly zone, which NATO rejects in order not to enter into a confrontation with the power Russian nuclear power”, explains the retired colonel.

Jonathan Bentham, an expert in military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, also warns that escorting merchant ships is only a good idea in theory. Russia could claim that these escorts were a legitimate military target – whether that was true or not.

Demining takes months or years

Ships clearing mines along shipping lanes also needed proper support, as they had few naval and anti-aircraft weapons and would therefore be an easy target, Bentham explained when asked.

“Mines are as many psychological obstacles as they are physical. Demining takes months or even years. Ideally, this would happen after a conflict rather than during a conflict. Military and political leaders of Europe and NATO therefore face a dilemma here, as there is no one solution to mine action,” Bentham said.

Equip Ukraine “massively” with weapons

Kiesewetter sees the only real alternative for Germany, the EU and NATO in equipping the Ukrainian armed forces “widely and quickly” with the appropriate weapons. “Here we are so far far from our potential, especially Germany. Unfortunately, the war will be decided with weapons, which is why I currently only see this possibility if NATO wants to continue to actively prevent to go to war.”

After the sinking of the missile cruiser “Moskva”, Bentham observes that the Russian Black Sea Fleet is advancing more cautiously than before. He therefore expects less for the moment a direct offensive on the coast than the use of cruise missiles at a distance. The best option for the Ukrainian armed forces right now is to keep the Russian fleet as far away from the Ukrainian coast as possible.

Decision on Snake Island

Bentham sees the recapture of Snake Island off the coast of Ukraine as an important option: it would prevent Russia from installing long-range anti-aircraft defenses there and give his fleet more freedom of movement under this protection, including towards the side. Bentham thinks it is possible that the Ukrainians could at least reduce the effectiveness of the Russian fleet.

The satellite image from the American company Maxar shows two Russian landing ships, one of which sank, off Snake Island in the Black Sea.

Image: AP

The head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service, Kyrylo Budanov, also described Snake Island as a crucial strategic location: whoever controls the island can block the movement of civilian ships in all directions towards southern Ukraine at any time. Ukraine will therefore fight for this island as long as possible. These battles thus turn into a decisive struggle for control of the western coast of the Black Sea off Odessa.

Kiesewetter stresses the importance of the blockade beyond the region: alongside Russia, China could take advantage of the grain shortage. It stores half of the cereals available in the world and could create new dependencies, particularly in Africa. Hunger, like energy before it, is becoming a geopolitical weapon.

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