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How to end Russia’s Black Sea blockade

Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and host of the weekly podcast “World Review with Ivo Daalder.” 

Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a military disaster. The country’s forces have failed to occupy Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s two largest cities, and progress in the Donbas has been slow, coming at extraordinary costs. 

But these failures shouldn’t obscure the fact that Russian forces have also made important strategic gains — not least by cutting off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea. While failing in the north, Russia has swiftly occupied large swaths of southern Ukraine, securing much of the coastline along the Sea of Azov, establishing the long-sought land bridge between Russia and Crimea. 

Moscow’s ultimate aim is to extend Russian territorial control along the entire northern coast of the Black Sea, turning a reduced Ukraine into a land-locked country. 

Ukraine is determined to prevent this from happening. It’s fought Russian forces west of Kherson to a halt and launched missile attacks against Russian ships, most spectacularly by sinking the Russian command ship, Moskva. New, more advanced anti-ship missiles are arriving by the day, forcing the Russian warships further out to sea.  But even if Russia ultimately fails to secure territorial control of the northern Black Sea, Ukraine won’t be able to break Russia’s block on shipping in and out of the country — not with missiles alone.

The consequences of the blockade are severe — not just for Ukraine but for the hundreds of millions of people who rely on Ukrainian grain to survive. 

Normally, 98 percent of these exports depart Ukraine by sea. Now, most sits in silos and other storage sites in Ukraine — a total of some 25 million metric tons of corn and wheat that, according to the Economist, is “equivalent to the annual consumption of all of the world’s least developed countries” combined. 

Efforts to ship wheat and other grains to other ports on the Black and Baltic seas by road and rail can only go so far. Not only is there a lack of trucks and fuel, but Ukrainian and European rail gauges are different, requiring cumbersome transits of cargo. 

Russia’s blockade is contributing to a global food crisis of potentially catastrophic proportions. “Failure to open those ports in Odesa region will be a declaration of war on global food security,” David Beasley, head of the World Food Program, recently told the U.N. Security Council. “This is not just about Ukraine, this is about the poorest of the poor around the world who are on the brink of starvation as we speak.” 

So far, diplomacy at the U.N. has made no progress. Russia blames Western sanctions for the global food crisis and Ukraine for blocking shipping by mining its ports. Its proposal to allow grain shipments in return for lifting all sanctions isn’t serious. Meanwhile, time is running short, as a new grain harvest will have no place to be stored. 

This is not the first time a critical global commodity has been disrupted by war, however. During the Tanker War in the 1980s, Iran blocked Iraqi oil exports and placed mines on tankers shipping Iraqi oil. The United States and other countries responded by escorting tankers to restore the flow of oil. 

A similar effort to break the Russian blockade is now needed. 

This would strictly be a humanitarian mission, aimed solely at ensuring safe passage for grain-filled cargo ships from Ukraine, out through the Black Sea. Navy ships from a coalition, preferably including grain-importing countries like Egypt, would escort the freighters, and minesweepers could clear a safe path for the ships. 

Though straightforward in theory, such a naval escort mission would need to overcome two obstacles: Russia and Turkey. 

Russia would have to cooperate, either explicitly or tacitly. If explicit, Moscow would agree to allow the shipments, perhaps after international inspectors verified that only food exports were leaving Ukraine and no weapons were being shipped back.  

Yet, while preferable, Russian consent isn’t strictly necessary. The shipping routes are through international and Ukrainian waters, giving Russia no right to block the cargo vessels or their escorts. And any attempt to do so, would require Moscow to make the first move, risking military confrontation with nations not directly involved in the war. 

As the accidental downing of a civilian airliner during the Tanker War underscores, mistakes and miscalculations are possible. But with its hands full in Ukraine, Russia would have every incentive not to escalate the conflict with others. 

For such a mission, Turkey would also have to agree to allow navy ships from non-Black Sea countries to sail through the Turkish straits. Ankara banned passage to all naval vessels in late February — it has the right to do so under the1936 Montreux Convention, but only when it feels “threatened with imminent danger of war.” Otherwise, the only vessels that should be restricted are those from the belligerent parties — Russia and Ukraine. Ankara, therefore, should allow naval escorts for humanitarian purposes to enter and exit the Black Sea. 

Military conflict is prone to accidents and miscalculations — as well as unintended escalation. That is one reason why the U.S. and other NATO countries have drawn a strict line between helping Ukraine defend itself and actually participating. It’s why they rejected calls for a no-fly zone, which risked direct clashes with Russian forces. 

A naval escort also carries risks of confrontation, though much less so than policing the vast skies of Ukraine. And given the colossal humanitarian need, the risks are worth taking

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