From the beginning of the war in Ukraine there have been concerns about confining it to two belligerents within defined geographical boundaries. The concern most often expressed is if Vladimir Putin, having seen his ambitions thwarted and with his forces on the run, lashes out in anger with nuclear weapons.
While no one dares to rule out an act of supreme irrationality, as I have argued here and here, nuclear weapon use would not solve any strategic problems for Russia. It would create many more. Nor has there been any indication that Putin is actually thinking along these lines: he is not even prepared to escalate by acknowledging that he is actually fighting a war and not just a limited “special operation”. Reservists have been signed up for the war in an almost covert fashion rather than through full mobilisation. Putin set a “red line” at the start of hostilities by demanding that Nato countries hold back from direct intervention in the war, and thus far this has been respected. For now, Nato is making an impact simply by keeping Ukraine economically afloat and militarily buoyant.
There is, however, another aspect to this war that has received insufficient attention – though it is now coming into focus – where pressure could build for a Nato operation: the need to relieve the blockade that Russia has successfully inflicted on Ukraine’s southern ports in the Black Sea. This is urgent not only because of the effect on Ukraine’s battered economy, but also because of its effect on supplies of essential agricultural products to the rest of the world. If Russian forces continue to be pushed back, and as the diplomacy to bring the war to a conclusion is stepped up, this critical issue will need to be addressed – possibly linked to Russian demands for relief from sanctions. If it is not, there could be demands on the major maritime powers to mount freedom-of-navigation operations to break the blockade.
Before considering the war at sea, we need to remind ourselves about the state of the war on land – for each influences the other. The end of the conflict’s second phase is approaching. In late March, Russia sharply changed its focus of operations away from the first phase – in which it sought to gain control of all Ukraine, particularly Kyiv – and towards the Donbas, the region that provided the Russians their pretext for war, and where they had made early gains. For this second phase they would exploit an apparently strong position to encircle and eliminate the main body of Ukrainian forces based in the region (its Joint Forces), and so complete the occupation of a defined and defensible chunk of Ukrainian territory. This territory was already being prepared for eventual incorporation into Russia’s administration, language, currency, education and so on.
This effort has failed. While Russian forces are continuing to make probing offensives, they have largely been blocked. The campaign map does not look much different from a month ago. Nato’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg has said that Ukraine “can win this war”, while the UK’s defence intelligence, having noted that the Russian army has lost a remarkable third of its original ground combat force, observed that it was now “significantly behind schedule”. This is a story of shrinking objectives. When the second phase started, analysts pointed to Dnipro as a likely objective. Then the focus was on Slovyansk, and now it is Severodonetsk, the Luhansk Oblast’s second-largest city, much closer to the main body of Russian forces. The main aspiration may be to complete the occupation up to the administrative borders of the oblast, even though they may not be able to do the same for Donetsk.
This is turning into a major battle, and costly for both sides. There is already fighting on the outskirts of Severodonetsk. The Ukrainians have blown up a bridge connecting it to Rubizhne, which Russia holds. Russian forces tried to get across the Siversky Donets river on 11 May, but they suffered a major setback when a tactically inept crossing was caught by the Ukrainians. This led to a reported 485 soldiers (out of 550) being killed or wounded and the destruction of 80 items of equipment.
Even if Russian forces take Severodonetsk, confirming their hold over Luhansk, their limited capacity to conduct major manoeuvres would still lead them to adopt a more defensive posture. The most significant development in recent days (other than the inevitable but much delayed end of the resistance in Mariupol) has been Russia’s retreat from positions around Kharkiv, a city that has suffered under terrible Russian bombardment. This is generating new options for the Ukrainians, including the possibility of enveloping Russian troops. Meanwhile Ukrainian forces have been making slow but steady progress, picking away at Russian positions close to Kherson, a city that the Russians were able to take without much of a fight early in the war.
Russia may therefore be shifting to a position of consolidation. It may try to hold off new Ukrainian offensives while it tries to replenish its forces until, at some point, it can renew its offensive, or even seek a political settlement that would leave it holding a significant chunk of Ukrainian land. This speculation has led figures such as Avril Haines, the director of US National Intelligence, to believe the war will be protracted, dragging into next year and beyond, adding to Europe’s – and the rest of the world’s – economic and political stresses, as well as those of the two belligerents.
This prospect helps explain the increase in high-level calls, including from the German chancellor Olaf Scholz, speaking to Putin, and the US secretary of defense Lloyd Austin, in his first direct talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, about the need for a ceasefire. It is hard to see why the Ukrainians should accept one with Russia still occupying much of their land. The agreed Nato position remains that war aims and peace deals are for Kyiv to decide. Yet the desire to bring the war to an end is palpable even if Putin is still holding on for some tangible gains.
Ukraine would prefer not to be rushed into its major offensive, which is still under preparation. This will be more demanding than defensive operations, so the risks will shift. And they will be seeking to recover a substantial amount of territory. Yet Ukraine still has reasons for confidence. Its army has consistently outfought the Russians. Its tactics have played to its forces’ strengths and knowledge of the terrain. It is now being well supplied by the West, including with vital modern artillery, while Russia’s stocks are depleted with old and not always reliable equipment. On paper, there are sufficient Russian numbers that, if competently led, could make life difficult for Ukrainian forces. This understates, however, the problem of sustaining the morale of an army that has achieved little since the first days of the war, has lost large numbers of men and equipment, and is now as likely to go backwards as forwards. There have been reports of units refusing to join the fray, and of individual soldiers looking for ways out and avoiding front-line duties. I can understand the caution when projecting forwards to a Ukrainian victory but it is hard to see where the Russian motivation comes from.
While the land war grinds on, a different sort of confrontation has been under way at sea. Far less attention has been given to the maritime dimension because this has seemed a more unequal contest, and at least at first the Russian navy made the most of its advantages. Its Black Sea fleet began the war with some missile corvettes and frigates, Kilo-class submarines and an old cruiser, the Moskva, as its flagship. These were joined by amphibious ships from the Baltic and northern fleets.
The Russian move to annex Crimea in 2014 was in part motivated by its desire to avoid any challenge to its naval base at Sevastopol. In the process of securing this base it also acquired three quarters of the Ukrainian navy. At the start of this war in February, the Ukrainian navy was still small, with only 5,000 sailors and consisting largely of patrol vessels. They were soon targeted by the Russians, and one, the Sloviansk, which had been gifted by the US to Ukraine in 2018, was sunk in the first week of March. By closing the Kerch Strait, which connects the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea, and stationing ships off Odessa and other Ukrainian ports, Russia was able to mount an effective blockade. This has been maintained. It has also used ships and submarines to launch missile strikes against targets in Ukraine.
BJ Armstrong, an assistant professor of war studies and naval history with the US Naval Academy, has summed up Russia’s naval successes:
“The establishment of command of the sea was followed rapidly by using the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea for operations affecting events ashore. The Sea of Azov was closed off and Ukrainian ports were blockaded, sealing off both military and commercial traffic. The Russian navy used the Sea of Azov to reinforce operations ashore and contributed to the brutal and ongoing assault on Mariupol. And the Black Sea fleet fired hundreds of missiles in a wide-ranging bombardment that contributed to both tactical effects but also the indiscriminate destruction of civilian targets. Regardless of the legitimacy of the Russian aggression, the legality of the maritime operations, and clear movement toward war crimes, through the lens of naval strategy and in dramatic comparison to the failures of the Russian army, the Russian navy did its job effectively.”
Yet not all has gone its way. Under the Turkish Straits regime, set up under the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey can close the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits to belligerent warships. It has already done this to Russian warships, reducing Russia’s ability to reinforce its position in the Black Sea. In addition, while amphibious landings early on supported the attack on the coastal city of Mariupol, Russia’s efforts to ferry in extra forces for the battle were dealt a blow when Ukrainians sank the amphibious ship Saratov while she was offloading at a pier in Berdyansk. And although an amphibious assault was expected at some point against Odesa, it never materialised. This was in part because Russian forces were unable to get close enough in their ground advance. Most seriously, on 13 April, Ukrainian forces using home-manufactured Neptune anti-ship missiles, sank the Moskva.
This has encouraged Russian caution. They must worry about other ships becoming vulnerable to attacks involving aircraft, drones and anti-ship missiles, possibly launched from relatively small craft. This is one reason why the tiny Snake Island (some 30 miles away from the Ukrainian coast) has become important. It was seized by Russia at the start of the war, providing the famous moment when Ukrainian soldiers holding the island told the Moskva, “Russian Warship, go f**k yourself.” It was believed that the 13 Ukrainian troops on the island were killed. But it transpired they had been captured.
Ukraine got its revenge by sinking the Moskva. In its absence, the island’s role became more important. If the Russians could establish electronic warfare and air defence systems there, they could compensate for the warship’s loss by helping to maintain the blockade and potentially join up operations with the Russian garrison in the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova, which is close to Odesa – although this now seems to be well beyond Moscow’s capabilities.
But there has been a battle under way for Snake Island. Ukraine has released evidence of attacks on anti-aircraft weapons, a support ship, two landing craft and a Russian helicopter as it landed Russian marines. For its part, the Russian Ministry of Defence claimed that it had thwarted a Ukrainian attempt to take the island and had shot down aircraft. (Pro-Russian social media has been full of stories about how terrible this was for Ukraine.) In practice, it is difficult to see how any force could feel safe on such a small and isolated space. On 12 May, Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s defence intelligence chief, explained that whoever holds Snake Island controls “the surface and to some extent the air situation in southern Ukraine” and can “block the movement of civilian vessels in all directions to the south of Ukraine at any time”. While he acknowledged that it might be challenging to retake the territory, he was more confident that it could be denied to the Russians.
So long as the blockade continues, real problems are caused not only for Ukraine but for the rest of the world. During the first month of the conflict, at least eight merchant vessels were attacked in Ukrainian ports and the Black Sea. One, the Helt, sank off the coast of Odesa having likely struck a mine. Many merchant vessels are stuck in Ukrainian ports unable to leave. Insurance premiums for ships planning to sail in the area are now prohibitive. On 20 April, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) reported that 84 ships with 500 crew members were trapped (other crew had been repatriated).
This has serious consequences. In 2022 Ukraine was predicted to provide around half of the world’s sunflower oil exports, 16 per cent of corn exports, along with 18 per cent of barley and 12 per cent of wheat. The UN food agency reported on 6 May that nearly 25 million tonnes of grain are stuck in Ukraine. While Ukraine is a major source of agricultural products to Europe, which Moscow may be pleased to see suffer, it also plays a major role in supplying countries such as Egypt, Lebanon and Algeria. Price hikes have reached as high as 50 per cent in some developing countries. This is the sort of inflation that can trigger serious unrest. Meanwhile, Russian forces have been accused of destroying storage facilities and stealing farm equipment, and it is alleged to have sent a cargo of 27,000 tonnes of grain to Syria, out of a total of 440,000 tonnes stolen from occupied Ukraine.
When hosting the EU Council president Charles Michel on 9 May, Volodymyr Zelensky emphasised Odesa’s importance to Ukraine’s agricultural exports and, by extension, to global food supplies. “This is a blow not only to Ukraine,” he said. “Without our agricultural exports, dozens of countries in different parts of the world are already on the brink of food shortages. And over time, the situation can become – frankly – frightening.” Michel confirmed this dire situation, adding: “We need a global response.” Ukrainian farmers are now preparing to harvest the crops they planted last winter but lack storage space.
On 14 May, G7 foreign ministers stated that:
“Russia’s unprovoked and pre-meditated war of aggression has exacerbated the global economic outlook with sharply rising food, fuel and energy prices. Combined with Russia blocking the exit routes for Ukraine’s grain, the world is now facing a worsening state of food insecurity and malnutrition. This is having devastating consequences for some of the most vulnerable people and rising costs also make it harder for humanitarian and development agencies to deliver assistance to those in greatest need. This is at a time when 43 million people were already one-step away from famine.”
Can anything be done to ease the crisis? Some grain is already travelling by train, and the EU plans to create a land corridor to Poland’s Baltic Sea ports. But this is a slow process, and can barely mitigate the developing global food crisis. The IMO has argued that a maritime corridor should be created for stranded ships to be able to leave, but the mines make this problematic.
On 24 April the head of the world’s largest ship manager, René Kofod-Olsen, urged Nato to provide naval escorts for commercial vessels passing through the Black Sea: “We should demand that our seafaring and marine traffic is being protected in international waters. I’m sure Nato and others have a role to play in the protection of the commercial fleet.”
The was proposed recently by Admiral James Stavridis, a former senior Nato commander, in an article for Bloomberg: “It’s worth considering an escort system for Ukrainian (and other national) merchant ships that want to go in and out of Odesa. This would be similar to the Operation Ernest Will escorts provided to merchants in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s… The vast Black Sea is mostly international waters. Nato warships are free to travel nearly wherever they want, including into Ukraine’s territorial waters and its 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Conceding those waters to Russia makes no sense. Instead, look for them to become the next major front in the Ukraine war.”
The issue was anticipated last summer when the UK sent HMS Defender to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov on a freedom-of-navigation mission, which certainly annoyed the Russians, who fired warning shots. The deputy Russian foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, then insisted that next time bombs would be dropped “not only in its path, but also on target”.
Protecting commercial shipping is by no means a simple option. Escorts would need to include minesweepers. Accompanying warships can also suffer from mines. There would need to be unanimity in Nato to authorise the operation – Turkey in particular would need to sign up. Because of the Montreux treaty, it has an effective veto as it would need to authorise Nato warships moving through the Turkish straits from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. And Turkey’s actions are not always predictable.
The view up to now has been that this would be an unduly provocative move, subject to the same misgivings that led Nato to reject calls for a “no-fly zone” above Ukraine, as it could lead to a direct confrontation with Russian naval forces. While prudence might be understandable, in purpose and conduct, this would be quite different. The principle of freedom-of-navigation is important. These would be in international or Ukrainian waters, and there would be no legitimate reasons to interfere with peaceful passage by commercial vessels. The Russians have not even declared a formal blockade. The accompanying force would not be looking to initiate any direct naval engagements. Nevertheless, Nato appears wary about taking such a move forward.
There have been suggestions that it would make more sense for something similar to be organised under the aegis of the United Nations, but that could be vetoed by Russia. A broad coalition of countries, including non-Nato members, could take on the task, but it would still need serious naval capabilities. The issue of enabling Ukraine to export its agricultural produce will be high on the agenda of any general ceasefire talks, and would soon be linked by Russia to discussions on relieving economic sanctions. It will also want to address the problems with its own overseas trade. Most major shipping companies have suspended their operations to and from Russian ports. Western countries have banned Russian-flagged, owned and operated ships from calling at their ports.
But if the war does drag on, this is an issue that will not go away. The greater the threat to global food supplies, the greater the pressure for drastic action will increase. The major naval powers need to be thinking ahead.
Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. The piece originally appeared on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.