Shipping movement continues in the Black Sea despite Ukraine war, sanctions

06 June 2022

Monitor, 6 June 2022

by AFP / Photo credits: Monitor

In response to Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has blocked hundreds of ships mostly containing Ukrainian grain exports in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Despite the blockade, observers have noted near-normal rates of shipping activity throughout the area. Key regional player Turkey has so far refrained from taking on a decisive role in stopping potential theft of the grain.

The blockade risks causing a global food crisis, as Ukraine is one of the world’s top agricultural exporters, exporting upwards of 25 million tonnes of grain and other agricultural goods to international markets.

Analysts say this proves that Russia is using food as a weapon of war. However, the European Union hopes to overcome this problem by creating a land corridor to Poland’s Baltic sea ports, which would allow Ukraine’s vital food exports to reach the rest of the world.

The number of ships on the route, 40,000, is nearly the same as before the war, according to experts.

The problem according to Vasyl Bodnar, Ukraine's ambassador to Turkey, is that Russia is taking advantage of the blockade that it has imposed to "steal Ukrainian grain and send it overseas from Crimea, including to Turkey".

"In May alone, we counted at least 10 passages including two round trips from three vessels flying the Russian flag... Not to mention those that we would have collectively missed."

According to an article in The Hill by Garrett I. Campbell, a retired US Navy captain, and Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, one solution to this blockade could be to reflag international merchant vessels, meaning to have these ships fly flags from countries with which Russia has ties and thereby recommence international exporting that way.

Although Turkey condemned Russia’s offensive in Ukraine, it has positioned itself as a neutral mediator and refused to join the West in implementing sanctions against Moscow.

Turkey is a key regional player thanks to the 1936 Montreux Convention regarding the Straits. This international agreement could play a decisive role in the Ukraine conflict, as it allows Turkey to decide if, and which, civilian vessels and military warships can pass through the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits, which form the seagoing link between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

After Ukraine asked it to intervene in an effort to maintain regional peace, Ankara agreed to close the straits to Russian warships in late February. Russian ships had entered the Black sea in early February and Turkey said it would not prevent Russian warships from entering the Black sea if Russia claimed they were returning home. A diplomatic source in Ankara added that Turkey is not legally entitled to intercept commercial ships or search them.

"We don't follow the ships on their way out of the Straits. We monitor them 10 kilometres before they enter and 10 kilometres after they leave," said the source on condition of anonymity.

Elizabete Aunina, a researcher at Amsterdam University, said: "If we look at the vague words of the Montreux treaty, it leaves a lot of room for interpretation."

"It did not foresee that merchant vessels could be carrying stolen goods... Turkey has before showed a certain commitment to sticking to the very basic interpretation of the Convention as a way to also protect itself from entering deeper into the conflict."

The European Union has imposed an embargo on Russian imports but tankers flying Greek and Maltese flags can be seen sailing through the Bosphorus up to the Black Sea and heading to Russian ports.


Maritime corridors

From his terrace overlooking the Bosphorus, Yoruk Isik, a 50-year-old Istanbul-born geopolitical analyst, has been observing ship movements on this key waterway between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean for the past decade.

Isik uses a combination of real-time tracking applications, a strong network of observers, and Russian and Ukrainian activists as well as satellite images to keep an eye on vessels.

"We can see from end to end", he said.

Some freighters loaded the wheat at Ukrainian ports that were under Russian blockade such as Odesa, Chornomorsk and Mariupol, he said.

These ships are bound for Syria, where Russia has an operational base, and then either Lebanon or Egypt, two countries that normally buy 81% and 85% of their grain, respectively, from Ukraine and are facing a food crisis as a result of this war.

Isik also saw a flotilla of old Turkish boats that have "never been seen before in the area" suddenly appear under another flag in the Russian port of Novorossiysk, which are "likely under contract with the Russian government".

He gives a few examples of others : Kocatepe (now Tanzanian), Barbaros (Equatorial Guinea), Hizir (Malta) and Sampiyon Trabzonsport (Cameroon). Isik, who has a list of the cargo ships that belong to the Russian defence ministry and those of the private companies operating on its behalf, feels that "what is happening is unacceptable".


Geopolitical fallout

Africa has also been severely affected by the war in Ukraine. As such, when Macky Sall, head of the African Union, met with Putin on Friday he told him that Russia’s blockade of Ukraine and thus of its grain exports had worsened food crises in Africa and that the grain should be freed up. But Sall also said that Western sanctions on Russia had aggravated Africa’s lack of access to grain. This comment, which was music to Moscow’s ears, does not come as a great surprise as many African countries have longstanding ties to Russia, some of which date back to when the Soviet Union supported these countries’ wars of independence against their colonial rulers. Putin has made sure to cultivate these relationships and thus has managed to avoid the ire of many African countries regarding the war in Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit Turkey on Wednesday, June 8, to discuss the possibility of establishing "sea corridors" - although Russia is secretly exporting Ukrainian wheat for its own benefit, according to experts.

"This is the information we get but we cannot stop, or check, or question the intention of any cargo ship except if we feel a threat to Turkish peace or security," the diplomatic source said.


EU considering tighter sanctions

"If Russia exports Ukrainian products, nobody authorises Turkey to stop the vessels", said Yucel Acer, an international law professor at the University of Ankara, adding "unless there is a United Nations resolution" - which wouldn’t help, as Russia still holds veto power in the Security Council.

The European Commission however is preparing its response, said a source in Brussels. It plans to introduce a new set of sanctions that would penalise Moscow if it refused to pay European operators in the event that their vessels are "caught in the act".

"Most of these vessels are covered by European and British insurance: with this new package, they will no longer be able to use them," said the source.

"This should have a significant impact."

But Turkey could do more, said Aunina, from Amsterdam University.

"Following the annexation of Crimea [on 18 March 2014], Turkey technically banned ships from Crimea in its ports: This could be done as well!"

Before the war, Ukraine was on track to become the world's third-biggest exporter of wheat. Africa and the Middle East both consume more bread products than other parts of the world and so are heavily reliant on Ukrainian exports. Africa imported $1.4bn in wheat from Ukraine between 2018 and 2020, representing 12% of its wheat imports.


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