Breaking the Russian Embargo on Ukrainian Grain

Why This Would Be a Decisive Strategic Step Forward


Crop in Spasov village, Rovno oblast, Ukraine July 5, 2011. Picture: Liilia Moroz

The new blockade imposed by Russia on Ukrainian grain exports on July 17, 2023 is undoubtedly only the tree that hides the forest. The deliberate destruction of a series of fields and warehouses, the recent strikes on which are merely a repetition of those which took place over a year ago, the theft of part of the harvest in areas under Moscow’s yoke, the systematic mining of fertile land which will leave it unused for many years to come, and the deliberate practice of ecocide, of which the explosion of the Kakhovka dam is only the most dramatic example, are all long-standing Russian practice. All this will have to be assessed and accounted for in the war reparations that Russia will have to pay to Ukraine. As for the recent strikes on the city and port of Odessa and the grain silos—one of which in Chornomorsk contained 60,000 tonnes of grain—fired presumably from the Sevastopol naval base in occupied Crimea, they are a further argument, if one were needed, for the need to liberate the peninsula from the Russian yoke.

Overall, the use of famine as a means of blackmail against Western countries, but even more so against dependent countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, has been widely denounced. It is fortunate that some of the countries concerned, notably several African countries, tempted by neutrality or a form of cronyism, are beginning to become aware of this. These are, in fact, war crimes. They constitute a major threat to the survival of part of the planet. They therefore go far beyond the destruction of Ukraine and the war of extermination against the Ukrainian people.

But as so often happens, the middle way that seems to have been chosen was a kind of band-aid on a wooden leg. The now broken grain agreement of July 22, 2022, negotiated by Turkey and the UN and renewed in November of the same year, then again in March and May 2023, was not likely to resolve the problem adequately in a lasting way. Although every effort had to be made, as a matter of urgency, to move as much Ukrainian grain as possible—mainly wheat and corn—through this route, it was only a fragile stopgap. The 33 million tonnes sold, 57% of which went to developing countries, was a far cry from pre-war levels. In terms of volume, China, Turkey, Spain and Italy were the main destinations for grain transiting this route. In fact, Europe’s share of total Ukrainian grain deliveries has risen by 45% over the past two years creating tensions in some Central and Eastern European countries.

The land route has also been added, posing major logistical and cost problems, but above all the river route (50% of grain exports by May 2023) via the Danube and on to secure allied ports (mainly Constanta in Romania). However, most experts agree that this addition was not enough to ensure that Ukrainian grain deliveries would be sufficiently supplemented. As difficult as it is to act specifically on grain theft, field mining and even silo bombing before Ukraine—our absolute objective—regains full control of its territories, the issue of blockading the port of Odessa and other Black Sea ports (Chornomorsk and Yuzhn) poses particular problems.

On June 10, 2022, shortly before his trip to Kyiv, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that he was ready to contribute to any action to unblock the port of Odessa in particular. However, this has not been undertaken under any terms other than those of the precarious July 2022 agreement. This fact alone underlined the limits of what the Allies intended to do at the time to counter Russia. It is this irresolution that now urgently needs to change.

A deceptive agreement

We are now faced with the reality that failure to unblock the ports of Odessa, and those of the Black Sea in general, not only denies Ukraine full protection, but also provides Moscow with a new opportunity to continue blackmailing both the European Union and other states, notably in Africa. It means accepting, without responding adequately, that the Russian regime is trying to pass itself off as a “great power”, which could have the last word in the face of a weak West, lacking in determination and credibility.

This has enabled the Kremlin to kill two birds with one stone.

On the one hand, the absence of any decisive action on the unblocking of Ukrainian ports, even if the leaders did not admit it, reinforced the Russian regime’s narrative that, in the end, there was little urgency, or even appetite, on the part of Western leaders to defend Ukraine in its entirety. This would mean that the cause of Ukraine’s territorial integrity is not taken into consideration beyond declarations of principle. This narrative is likely to appeal to certain sections of African, Asian and Middle Eastern societies that have been worked over by Russian propaganda.

On the other hand, it would also mean that, ultimately, the liberal West is weaker than Russia, since the latter can take the law into its own hands, even criminally. With the cereals agreement, Moscow has been given a key: the power to block, with blackmail renewed every two months. What confidence could other states reasonably have in democratic countries if they were threatened? In the present case, it would seem quite clear that the West is not prepared to take risks to guarantee the long-term food security of southern countries dependent on Ukrainian grain.

This lack of action reflects a lingering fear of Putin’s regime, and a temptation to be even more careful with his language. This is yet another variation on Western fears of escalation and war between Russia and the West, the levers of Western self-dissuasion. Faced with these fears, while sounding the alarm about the dramatic consequences for the global food situation and rising prices, some leaders underestimate the overall long-term consequences of using this ancient weapon on a radically new scale. They still have only an incomplete grasp of Russia’s plan to disrupt the global economy. Or, perhaps, they have a vague awareness of it, but still insufficient to understand that any form of agreement that would leave Russia intact would still allow it to pursue its design.

In fact, the very principle of an agreement with Moscow is deeply flawed, as is the all-too-frequently-heard idea that there could one day be some form of negotiation with the Russian regime that would seal the end of the war. It is with this in mind, moreover, that Moscow has laid down its conditions for lifting its blockade: the return of the connection of Rosselkhozbank, the Russian agricultural bank belonging to the Patrushev clan, to the SWIFT inter-bank settlement system, which had been excluded like all Russian banks and financial institutions; the lifting of restrictions on marine insurance; and the recommissioning of the pipeline used to transport ammonia, necessary for Russian fertilizers, linking the Russian city of Togliatti and Odessa in particular.

These conditions are certainly unacceptable, as they would unravel the system of sanctions already undermined by their circumvention and increasingly visible loopholes. This would once again allow Russia to massively expand its own agricultural and fertilizer exports, which have been penalized by restrictions and the lack of components needed to operate them, and thus render the sanctions null and void. In fact, this would above all enable it to redevelop its oil exports, since Russian agricultural commodity exports are not covered by the agreement and even exploded in the first half of 2023. In fact, Russia has found a way to finance these exports. The reality is that Moscow’s blackmail is aimed at bringing down the sanctions regime outside the agricultural sector. For democracies to give in on this point would be tantamount to capitulation. It would give Moscow even more means to finance its war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Logically, Moscow’s pressure translates into ever more extreme threats: for example, it has stated that any ship leaving Ukrainian ports will be destroyed by Russian armed forces. To add gesticulation to threats, Russia has also undertaken naval exercises simulating such an attack. The Ukrainians have already legitimately responded in kind, threatening to attack Russian warships—the distinction is certainly decisive. Once again, Putin’s regime intends to test our resolve, and is all the more eager to do so since it certainly perceived the NATO summit in Vilnius as an admission of weakness. Russia’s perverse game of cereal blackmail and all-out war in Ukraine can no longer continue.

A map showing the location of the Black Sea and some of the large or prominent ports around it. The Sea of Azov and Sea of Marmara are also labelled, July 25, 2005. Author: User:NormanEinstein

The global scope of a decisive operation by the democracies

All restrictions on decisive action to lift the blockade of Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea must be lifted, not only in terms of saving Ukraine, but also in terms of the major global consequences caused by Putin’s regime.

Russia has violated hundreds of international treaties and conventions on a massive scale. In the present case, it has repeatedly violated the Law of the Sea and, specifically, the Montreux Convention of 1936. The grain agreement has done nothing to stop these violations. Perhaps, before the Russia-Africa summit scheduled to take place in St. Petersburg on July 27-28, 2023, Putin will give in. But it will be a short-lived respite. The threat will persist, and Russia will continue to play us for fools. Nor should the West buy into the idea, sometimes floated, of setting up a subsidiary specializing in agricultural exports within Rosselkhozbank: that would be to put a finger in a dangerous understanding that could set a precedent.

In a tweet dated July 19, 2023, which received a certain amount of attention, I proposed that warships from certain NATO countries—notably Turkey, France, the UK and the USA—should escort merchant vessels, regardless of their flag, that leave loaded with Ukrainian grain.

An attack on one of these ships could lead the country thus attacked to invoke Article 5 of NATO. Others had put forward a broadly similar proposal. As has also been suggested, it would be highly significant if countries in the South were to support this initiative. Immediately, some of the Kremlin’s usual relays, or those influenced by it, unsurprisingly suggested that I wanted war, that this would immediately lead to a confrontation between NATO and Russia, and that a nuclear apocalypse would follow! The argument had already been used extensively since February 24, 2022, and even earlier on many occasions.

There are, of course, several variations on this proposal.

The first would be for Turkey, as a NATO member, to assume responsibility. This could be significant in the current context, where Ankara has handed over the Azovstal fighters to Ukraine, finally accepted Sweden’s NATO application and supported Kyiv’s. This would represent a definite plus for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and a form of further righteous humiliation for Putin. But it would be to place a certainly excessive burden on Turkey and put other NATO members in a position of excessive liability.

A second solution, certainly even more to be rejected, would be to threaten Russia with reprisals if it attacked a merchant ship carrying grain. This hypothesis would be extremely risky: the Allies would run the risk of a ship being attacked by Moscow and sunk, creating further civilian casualties. It would force NATO to respond immediately, or risk delegitimizing and ridiculing itself forever. This solution would be cynical and, ultimately, irresponsible. In any case, it is highly probable that no insurer would accept such a risk.

There remains the third solution, which would directly involve NATO countries, and therefore the organization as such, in this escort operation. It would send out a powerful deterrent signal to Moscow, and could even constitute a strategic turning point that the Vilnius summit failed to achieve. It would also herald a broader, long-term commitment to freedom of navigation and global security in the Black Sea, one of the major challenges of the coming decades. Finally, it would demonstrate to third countries, notably of Africa and the Middle East, that the Allies are taking the necessary steps to ensure their food security. It is reasonable to assume that it would have a positive effect on food prices. It would also send a meaningful signal to People’s Republic of China.

Of course, the risks of such an undertaking can always be argued, even if they appear limited. It is unlikely that the Kremlin would dare take the risk of sinking NATO ships. But when it comes to defeating an enemy like Russia, which, if not defeated, would pose a lasting threat to global security, is it really prudent and reasonable to avoid all risk? The answer is no. This Cuba-style solution—whatever the differences in size compared to the global and local context of 1962—remains indispensable today.

Without doubt, this new resolution is still insufficient to put an end to Russia’s war against Ukraine. But it would remove some of the bad omens that continue to hang over its outcome.


  1. I wonder why grain ships can’t remain within territorial waters of Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria in the Black Sea. Does anyone know anything about this?

  2. “There remains the third solution, which would directly involve NATO countries, and therefore the organization as such, in this escort operation. It would send out a powerful deterrent signal to Moscow, and could even constitute a strategic turning point that the Vilnius summit failed to achieve.”

    This is by far the best solution. Putler would back down immediately, and it would get some African countries on the side of the West. It could also give Biden something to crow about, in the run up to the elections. All it needs is someone with a set of balls!

    • NATO could’ve done this a long time ago already. Why are they such spineless cowards???

      • Nothing to stop Erdogan from protecting these ships. He opened his big mouth last week, but has gone very quiet this week. The West still don’t realise, that the best way to treat orcs, is to fuck them. They see appeasement as weakness.

        • It’s very hard to believe that the various morons in various Western capitals still haven’t learned this fact … that a ruskie understands only a punch in the face. Can they be so stupid, or is there more to it than meets the eye?

Enter comments here: