Russia’s Black Sea blockade is part of Putin’s war on international law

On March 18, the UN announced an extension to the Grain Deal, an agreement brokered in summer 2022 which allows for limited amounts of Ukrainian grain to be exported to global markets via the country’s blockaded Black Sea ports. This is good news. However, within days, it became clear that Russia wanted further concessions and was only prepared to prolong the deal for a limited period of 60 days. Once again, we were reminded of how Moscow seeks to weaponize global food security in order to hold the international community hostage.

The blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports began on the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. It aims to break Ukraine economically by undermining the country’s position as one of the world’s leading agricultural exporters. The impact of the blockade goes beyond Ukraine and is global in scale. By preventing the free passage of merchant shipping in the Black Sea, Russia deprives world markets of vital Ukrainian agricultural produce while also challenging the core principles of international maritime law.

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From the very beginning, Russia’s attack on Ukraine has always gone beyond the boundaries of conventional military operations and attempted to strike at Ukraine’s very ability to exist as a functioning state. Russian troops have systematically destroyed vast swathes of farmland and made Ukraine the most mined country in the world. For the past six months, Russia has conducted a campaign of airstrikes targeting Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure in a bid to deprive Ukrainians of access to heating, electricity, and water supplies. The maritime blockade is another element in this war against Ukrainian statehood.

The suffering inflicted by Russia’s brutal invasion is not restricted to Ukrainians. According to the country’s Ministry of Infrastructure, more than 400 million people in Asia and Africa face the prospect of mounting food insecurity as a result of Russian efforts to restrict Ukrainian agricultural exports. While the current Grain Deal goes some way to countering this threat, it offers only a partial and short-term solution. Much more is needed in order to improve global food security and reaffirm the right to free passage for merchant shipping in international waters.

It is clearly in the interests of the international community to work toward ending Russia’s Black Sea blockade. First and foremost, this would lead to dramatically improved food security for many of the world’s most vulnerable communities. The resumption of maritime trade in the Black Sea would also provide the Ukrainian economy with approximately $20 billion in additional annual revenues. This would significantly reduce the economic burden on Ukraine’s partners and international financial institutions, which are now being asked to prop up the struggling Ukrainian economy indefinitely. Renewed merchant shipping would also be good for other economies, allowing Ukraine to resume imports worth tens of billions of dollars in 2021.

Ukrainians understand that there is no international appetite for any direct military intervention to break Russia’s Black Sea blockade. Nevertheless, there are numerous other tools available to the international community that could be used to pressure Moscow. The most obvious measures would include additional sanctions and restrictions targeting Russian shipping.

This approach has yet to be fully explored. At present, Russian ships are not subject to the same checks and inspections that Ukrainian vessels must undergo in line with the terms of the Grain Deal. Instead, they are free to continue their international trade unhindered. Over the past year, Russia has reportedly increased its maritime exports by more than a quarter. At the same time, there have been numerous accusations made against Russian vessels for allegedly shipping military cargoes, including in contravention of the 1936 Montreux Convention governing maritime passage through the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits in Turkey.

By blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, Russia is violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the UN Charter. In response, Ukraine is calling on the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to force Russia to unblock the country’s sea ports. The IMO must use its powers as a UN agency to hold Russia accountable for violating the UNCLOS, and must be ready to impose suitable sanctions measures if Moscow refuses to comply.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a wide range of fundamental challenges to the rules-based international order that first emerged from the ashes of World War II. This is very much part of Putin’s plan. He wishes to return the world to an era when a handful of major powers were able to dictate to their weaker neighbors.

One of the many front lines in this geopolitical confrontation is the maritime front. Putin seeks to bankrupt Ukraine and overcome international opposition to his war by weaponizing agricultural exports. He does so in clear violation of international maritime law. If he succeeds, other autocrats will take note and adopt similarly aggressive tactics, with potentially catastrophic consequences for global trade. Ending Russia’s Black Sea blockade will not be easy and will require considerable political courage, but failure to do so will lead to rising costs in the years to come.

Oleksiy Goncharenko is a Ukrainian member of parliament with the European Solidarity party.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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Image: The Russian Navy has been imposing a blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports for over a year. (Ministry of Defence of the Russia via Reuters Connect)