The West must break the Black Sea blockade

Putin’s forces cannot be allowed to threaten millions with starvation by stopping wheat exports

Charles Michel is a Euro bigwig, president of the European Council no less, and thought it would be good to celebrate Europe Day this week in the port of Odesa. The 19th-century poet Alexander Pushkin wrote that “you can feel Europe” in Odesa but before Michel could settle in nicely he was rushed to an air-raid shelter because of incoming missile fire from Crimea.

Western politicians come and go, but the war has developed its own independent, if stuttering momentum. President Putin, in his Victory Day speech on the Kremlin walls, seemed to suggest that the conquest of the entire Donbas region was his chief goal. But he left open what would happen next. The now inevitable fall of the port of Mariupol will help to link Donbas to the sea and to Crimea — that much is plainly the battle plan.

What is being offered up is an extended war conducted in phases. In between each phase there could be a refreshment break allowing troops to rotate and a brief diplomatic intermezzo before fighting resumes. One critical stage could be to proceed further west down the Black Sea coast and render Ukraine a landlocked and shrivelled state.

Not that Putin even bothered to mention Ukraine by name or any programme of conquest. Nowadays he lets his artillery do the talking. But as Michel found in Odesa this will soon become a maritime and littoral war as much as a battle for territory; a war with ambitions to cause global disruption and not just redress the balance of power in eastern Europe. That was what Michel saw on his fleeting visit — silos full of grain, wheat and corn ready for export but unable to budge because of the Russian blockade. A ship loaded with 35,000 tonnes of corn stuck in port.

The waters have been mined by the Russians and on certain parts of the coast by Ukrainians. The Black Sea bombardment from the Russians has been so relentless that dolphins are washing up on the Turkish coast, killed in part by the acoustic overload of the sonar activity under water.

Russia and Ukraine together account for 30 per cent of global wheat exports. Russia, wheezing under western sanctions, is finding it difficult to operate as an exporter. It can’t even resupply its garrison in Syria. Ukraine, meanwhile, cannot penetrate the Putin blockade. It is faced with the compound dilemma of farmers being unable to complete their summer sowing — fields have become battlefields — not being able to harvest and not being able to sell the crop for export for the kind of prices they need to pay for the diesel to drive the tractors that spread the fertiliser they can’t afford. No one would be surprised if the Ukrainian government ends up having to commandeer part of the grain crop for domestic consumption.

The knock-on effect? Higher food prices around the world. And a critical food shortage that drives some regions to the brink of famine. The UN World Food Programme warns that “we haven’t seen a humanitarian situation as severe as this since the Second World War”. Actually, it was pretty much saying that before the Russian invasion. Climate shifts were creating devastating droughts and mass internal displacements of farming communities in east Africa. High natural gas prices were making nitrogen phosphate fertilisers unaffordable. Because of the pandemic many states were floundering in a debt crisis.

Now comes the shortfall from what used to be known as the breadbasket of Europe. At least 14 African countries import half or more of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia. Eritrea depends entirely on these deliveries. Some 400 million people in total are fed with the grain, wheat, maize and sunflower oil that come out of the Ukrainian war zone.

Most of these customers have plenty of problems already. There has been a locust infestation in Kenya, civil war in Ethiopia, extreme flooding in South Sudan: all ingredients of an interlocked food emergency, looming famine.

Somalia is suffering its worst drought in decades but can’t turn to Egypt for emergency imports because Cairo imports 80 per cent of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia and has had to fix the price of bread. Underpinning many of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010-11 was anger about rising food prices; it remains a key destabilising factor for regimes whose citizens spend as much as 40 per cent of their wages on food.

It’s not clear whether Putin is trying to create an escalation option with his maritime blockade of Ukraine, acting perhaps as a James Bond villain capable of pushing a nuclear button, creating migration flows to Europe or indeed triggering food shortages around the world to keep the West nervously interested in a Kremlin-dictated peace. One thing is clear, though: blockades are a primitive instrument of war.

President Zelensky of Ukraine called on the West yesterday to break the blockade of Odesa. Britain and its allies should consider this. We fret about the risk of no-fly zones over Ukrainian terrain but it should be possible, with UN backing, to create a protected sea lane from Odesa to, say, the Romanian port of Constanta. It would be the maritime equivalent of a humanitarian corridor and would demonstrate to the non-aligned world that the conflict in Ukraine is about more than a European power struggle.

As for Russian resistance to such a plan, Putin’s admirals might just like to reflect on the fate of the flagship Moskva before taking aim. We are supplying the kit; a certain boldness is now required of us.


  1. “As for Russian resistance to such a plan, Putin’s admirals might just like to reflect on the fate of the flagship Moskva before taking aim. We are supplying the kit; a certain boldness is now required of us.”

    Boldness … is sorely missing in the West.
    This is another place in which the West is a failure. We could so easily unblock the Black Sea AND the Sea of Azov. We could assure the transfer of wheat and other foodstuffs to where they are needed, we could save the people in Mariupol. We could do so much and there is NOTHING the cockroach navy could do to stop us. We have everything needed for such measures … except boldness and courage.

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