Reflagging ships could be the answer to Russia’s blockade of Black Sea ports

02 June 2022

The Hill, 2 June 2022

by Anna Borshchevskaya / Photo credits: Associated Press/Alexander Demyanchuk, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo

Russian President Vladimir Putin continues his war on Ukraine. Russia is now blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, which prevents upwards of 25 million tons of grain and other agricultural goods from delivery to international markets. Left unchecked, this will likely create a food crisis due to severe shortages in parts of the Middle East and Africa, which may result in civil conflicts and large migration into Europe. The Russian blockade requires an international response, supported by the U.S. and NATO that minimizes escalation risk. Reflagging of international merchant vessels could be the answer.

When a ship is registered for international travel, it has to choose a nation under which flag it will sail. The UN Convention on the Law of the Seas states that a vessel should have ‘a genuine’ link with its flag state, but over the years a practice of “flag of convenience” has evolved; many states have reflagged ships to conceal or protect cargo.

Countries with the most at risk to this food crisis include, ironically, many of those with which Russia has pursed expanded military ties in recent years, such as Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia, Indonesia, Libya and Pakistan. All these countries are candidates for reflagging merchant vessels. While the economic crisis is global, it affects the Middle East most directly. Russia, to be sure, showed willingness to begin allowing ships to depart occupied Eastern Ukrainian ports, but more must be done, especially as Russia is still profiting by taking these steps and is clearly stealing Ukrainian ships and wheat for its own export.

To address Russia’s blockade U.s. Navy Admiral James Stavridis has recently invoked the precedent of the 1987-88 Operation Earnest Will, the largest naval convoy operation since World War II. At the time, U.S. Navy combatants escorted Kuwaiti-owned tankers to protect them from Iranian attacks during the Iran-Iraq war, while the U.S. Air Force and Army provided surveillance and other support. Stavridis is proposing a similar undertaking now.

When it comes to Russia’s current war with Ukraine, however, this would be unnecessarily escalatory and simply miss the point. To be fair, Operation Earnest Will had parallels to the current context. Like the current war, the Iran-Iraq war presented a sea mine threat propagated by both sides, as well as a threat of missile strikes on neutral merchants. But unlike in Iran-Iraq war, now there is a threat of Russian amphibious operations against Odessa — the principle port that Russia, a belligerent in the war, wants to take. The Iran-Iraq war did not present a threat of an amphibious invasion. Furthermore, the Montreux Convention puts restrictions on class of ship and duration of stay within the Black Sea, which all but rules out the types of combatants used to escort merchants during Operation Earnest Will.

For its part, based on Russian military doctrine, Moscow’s special operation in Ukraine is viewed as a local war. Utilizing NATO combatants, which would be necessary if we were to use Operation Earnest Will as a guide, will regionalize the war and thus introduce the specter of Russian nuclear employment. Putin would relish such an opportunity, as he relies on Western leaders’ fear of military escalation. NATO regardless has already said it will not impose a no-fly zone precisely out of fear of getting into a direct military conflict with Russia. Therefore, it is better to focus on this crisis through a humanitarian lens, under the flags of those nations most affected by the food crisis. Going this route is the best solution for reflagging because it would not risk escalation of war by involving superior NATO maritime forces.

There are, to be sure, a number of risks associated with reflagging merchant ships. First, it would simply be a difficult undertaking. It would likely require countries to make temporary agreements on reflagging. The U.S. may need to engage in creative diplomacy to include bringing funding, training and equipping of select navies with limited Mine Counter Measures (MCM) capabilities. Most importantly, the Kremlin would see this humanitarian mission as an escalatory step. Still, it would be a far cry from bringing in NATO warships that can launch strikes against Russia and Crimea.

Second, both Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of deploying sea mines in the Back Sea. Indeed, both parties are to blame. To address this issue, minimally armed MCM vessels could be a good option. Traditionally these vessels lack any offensive capabilities. Additionally, MCM operations potentially require helicopters and explosive ordnance technicians to safely dispose of and clear the paths for the reflagged merchants to proceed to Romanian waters whereby they can continue unmolested within the international maritime boundaries of the non-combatant Black Sea states to the Turkish Straits.

Turkey should initially provide MCM vessels and also lead this effort, as it is the keeper of the Montreux Convention. Later, additional MCM capability might possibly be provided by non-NATO countries like EgyptSaudi Arabia and Indonesia. These nations should escort the reflagged merchants in Ukrainian waters, while Bulgaria and Romania undertake this role during transit through their waters. NATO and the U.S. can steer these efforts by providing training and even potentially deploy the NATO Standing Maritime MCM Group to support NATO efforts within NATO state’s maritime borders. Again, the Montreux Convention would limit that participation.

Perhaps the most important element of this campaign will be information. If the Russian military continues to attack reflagged ships these actions should be broadcast in real time to put Russia on the defensive in the court of global public opinion. If Russia stops these ships, it would be responsible for helping perpetuate famine in the Middle East and Africa, while governments that continue to deal with Russia will feel pressure to limit their dealings with a country that is willing to starve their people.

Again, reflagging ships coupled with a limited demining effort would be difficult. But it is a better option given other alternatives. Western leaders may not realize just how dire the economic crisis will be if left unchecked, and a humanitarian option is better than a military escalation with NATO. Russian military deliberate targeting and theft of Ukraine’s natural resources and merchant ships, as well as weaponization of food show there are no limit to Moscow’s moral depravity. Putin remains committed his goal of overturning the outcome of the Cold war and renegotiation of the European security order; and he still has cards left to play. The West must ensure he loses. The stability of the liberal global order is at stake.


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