How to break the Russian blockade of the ports of Ukraine on the Black Sea
Earnest Will kept the oil flowing and took influence from the Iranians. Tradidi’s Valley Forge successfully deployed it, and the expedition had an important impact on global geopolitics and energy supplies.
As the world faces food shortages due to the illegal blockade of Ukraine by Russia, the United States and its allies should consider a similar response.
Ukraine supplies a significant part of the world’s wheat (about 7% of world exports), sunflower oil and other important agricultural products. Russia’s actions are not only illegal under international law, but could cause famine in the Middle East and North Africa – already unstable hot spots.
Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys naval control of the northern Black Sea because his fleet, which includes more than two dozen large combat ships, is by far the most powerful in the region. With 25,000 sailors, about 40 surface warships and seven submarines, the fleet is formidable even after losing its massive Slava-class battleship, the Moskva, in a Ukrainian cruise missile attack in April.
While NATO allies Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria have capable forces in the Black Sea, Ukraine has almost no naval weapon left to defy the Russian blockade. Russian forces are organized along its coast and are in a position to stifle the economy, with the side effect of preventing agricultural products from reaching their intended markets.
Moscow employs a strategy reminiscent of the strategy used by the Union Army against the agricultural south in the American Civil War. Named after the serpent that strangles its victims to death, the anaconda plan deprived the Confederacy of hard currency by forbidding the export of cotton. Several European countries challenged the naval blockade, but to no avail.
Putin is pulling a page out of Lincoln’s playbook, and that’s having an effect. The Russians have now proposed negotiations to allow the grain to be shipped in exchange for the lifting of Western sanctions that the United States and its allies would not accept.
Which leads us to the idea of breaking the blockade by escorting merchant ships. The first challenge is the most obvious: Who will do the escort? This could be done under the auspices of the United Nations, or by NATO, or by a coalition of countries willing to undertake what would be a provocative and dangerous mission.
The most likely approach would be the latter option, led by the United States and possibly involving the United Kingdom and France, and possibly the Black Sea states Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria.
The second challenge would be to clear the mines, because both the Ukrainians and the Russians used them to try to control the seas along the Ukrainian coast. NATO has a standing force of minesweepers for exactly this purpose. This fleet operates under one of my successors as Supreme Allied Commander, General Todd Walters.
Third, countries implementing any blockade have to work with major shipping countries and international traders who carry and own grain and other products. This can be regulated by the International Maritime Organization, which is based in London. Part of the United Nations, the International Maritime Organization played a similar role in organizing international responses to piracy off the coast of Africa when I was NATO commander.
This would also likely require the re-flying of the flag of some merchant ships to the nationalities of the countries involved in the process, as the United States did in the Gulf.
Finally, there is the task of informing Russia of the plan and making sure that it understands that the coalition running the operation will not tolerate any interference – but also does not wish to engage in combat with the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Moscow is likely to explode, but the idea of attacking NATO warships in international waters is weak. If the Russians, against odds, do something stupid, it will be met with a commensurate use of force.
We have reached a pivotal point: grain shipments are halted, the Ukrainian economy is devastated, and the next food crisis must be avoided. Democratic allies should explore a serious process approach along the lines of will. Simply allowing Putin to make his way on the high seas cannot continue.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
The sunken Russian warship is a warning to all navies: James Stavridis
• What Ukraine can learn from Finland’s position 80 years ago: James Stavridis
Russia is right: The US is waging a proxy war in Ukraine: Hal Brands
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James Stavridis is a columnist for Bloomberg. A retired US Navy admiral, former Supreme Commander of NATO, Dean Emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Vice President of Global Affairs at The Carlyle Group.
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