Time to End Russia’s Black Sea Piracy


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May 03, 2023

Time to End Russia’s Black Sea Piracy

Russia’s unilateral Black Sea blockade violates freedom of navigation, threatens

Russia's unilateral Black Sea blockade violates freedom of navigation, threatens global food supplies, and is costing Ukraine and the West billions. It is time to end it.

By any reasonable definition of the word, Russia's Black Sea blockade of maritime trade with Ukraine equates to piracy, or at least the threat of it. The international community's response has been dismal. By accepting Russia's implicit threats to sink foreign-flagged merchant vessels in international waters, we have allowed the Kremlin to successfully blackmail the world.

That blackmail continues. Threats to maintain a Russian boot on the neck of food exports that supply the world, unless new concessions are made, is a constant theme for Russian spokesmen. On May 29, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: "If everything remains as it is, and apparently it will, then it will be necessary to proceed from the fact that it [the deal] is no longer functioning."

This statement came just 12 days after the two-month extension of a previously negotiated grain deal, under which tons of Ukrainian grain may be exported by ship to global markets, provided vessels follow a certain, specially designated "green" channel, and are subject to UN, Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish inspection before entering the Bosphorus Strait. Only "bulkers" and "tankers" – not container ships – are permitted.

Even when the grain deal operates normally, allowing a restricted flow of grain exports, it creates a legal façade that legitimizes Russia's military actions in blocking all other Ukrainian sea-based exports. Russia's threats are not just a form of words: Russian warships have laid sea mines and fired missiles at commercial vessels regardless of what flag they fly if they head for, or seek to leave Ukrainian ports.

The grain deal gives Russia an unprecedented role in overseeing Black Sea shipping, despite the fact it has a legal claim to only 10% of the Black Sea coastline and is a party to the Montreux Convention, which was designed to assure freedom of commerce through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits. The Convention assigns Turkey — not Russia — the role of ensuring that freedom of navigation is unimpaired.

It is time to break the Russian blockade. Here's how:

As a matter of policy, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, the G7, European Union, and all NATO allies, should now demand that Russia immediately drop its implied threats to normal commercial shipping in international waters in the Black Sea, and state their expectation that Ukrainian ports will immediately be re-opened for business.

This policy should be backed up by a number of practical diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian steps.

Some may argue that ending Russia's blockade will be seen by Russia as a provocation, or lead to direct conflict between the West and Russia. The United States should remember its history here. The modern US Navy traces its roots to the Naval Act of 1794 when in the face of piracy off the Barbary Coast in North Africa, Congress for the first time approved the construction of warships in order to defend US merchant vessels in the Mediterranean. Ever since the protection of freedom of navigation has been a central function of the US Navy. It is a remarkable departure from long-standing US policy on the freedom of navigation to permit such restrictions to be imposed on international waters in the Black Sea.

Each year, the US Department of Defense provides a report to Congress on Freedom of Navigation with an annex that lists states whose maritime claims restrict freedom of navigation. The latest report, released on April 21 and covering the year 2022, makes no mention of Russia's denial of freedom of navigation in the Black Sea. Presumably, this is because the Montreux Convention establishes treaty-based limitations on military navigation through the Straits, which means freedom of navigation is already curtailed by the treaty. But the Convention's terms in no way impede the free flow of commercial shipping – quite the contrary. It is Russia's actions since February 2022 which now impose restrictions.

The great port of Odesa — which is actually a network of several ports — is the lifeblood of Ukraine's export economy. The country's road and rail network to Europe is already functioning at full capacity and yet is nowhere near robust enough to accommodate all of Ukraine's imports and exports. As nations prepare to gather in London on June 21-22 for the Ukraine Recovery Conference, no step would have a greater immediate impact on Ukraine's economy than opening the port of Odesa for normal commercial shipping, including container shipping. Time is of the essence, as Ukraine's harvest will produce at least 60 million more tons of grain which should flow unimpeded to global markets.

The West has, understandably, focused on the provision of military equipment to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian attacks. Far too little attention has been paid to the maritime domain.

Support for freedom of navigation in the Black Sea aligns with long-standing policies of the United States and other nations and principally serves economic, rather than military objectives.

It would be incredibly brazen and ill-considered of Russia to attack international shipping in the open waters of the Black Sea. It is time to call Russia's bluff and open the port of Odesa for good.

Ambassador Kurt Volker is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. A leading expert in US foreign and national security policy, he served as US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations from 2017-2019, and as US Ambassador to NATO from 2008-2009.  

Europe's Edge is CEPA's online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.