In response to Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, Russia blocked hundreds of ships carrying mostly Ukrainian grain exports in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Despite the blockade, observers noted near normal levels of maritime activity across the region. A key regional player, Turkey has so far refrained from playing a decisive role in the fight against potential grain theft.
The blockade risks causing a global food crisis, as Ukraine is one of the world’s leading agricultural exporters, exporting more than 25 million tonnes of grain and other agricultural products to international markets.
Analysts say this proves Russia is using food as a weapon of war. However, the European Union hopes to overcome this problem by creating a land corridor to Poland’s Baltic Sea ports, which would allow Ukraine’s vital food exports to reach the rest of the world.
The number of ships on the route, 40,000, is about the same as before the war, experts say.
The problem according to Vasyl Bodnar, Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey, is that Russia is taking advantage of the blockade it has imposed to “steal Ukrainian grain and send it overseas from Crimea, including to Turkey”.
“For the month of May alone, we counted at least 10 passages, including two round trips by three ships flying the Russian flag… Not to mention those that we would have missed collectively.”
According to an article in The Hill by Garrett I. Campbell, a retired US Navy captain, and Anna Borshchevskaya, senior researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, one solution to this blockade could be to change the flag of the international merchant ships, that is to say, to fly these ships the flags of countries with which Russia has links and thus start international exports again.
Although Turkey condemned the Russian offensive in Ukraine, it positioned itself as a neutral mediator and refused to join the West in implementing sanctions against Moscow.
Turkey is a key regional player thanks to the 1936 Montreux Convention on the Strait. This international agreement could play a decisive role in the Ukrainian conflict, as it allows Turkey to decide whether and which civilian ships and military warships can cross the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits, which form the maritime link between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. .
After Ukraine asked it to intervene in an effort to maintain regional peace, Ankara agreed to close the strait to Russian warships in late February. Russian ships had entered the Black Sea in early February and Turkey said it would not stop Russian warships from entering the Black Sea if Russia claimed they were returning home. A diplomatic source in Ankara added that Turkey was not legally allowed to intercept or search commercial vessels.
“We do not track ships leaving the strait. We watch them 10 kilometers before they enter and 10 kilometers after they leave,” the source said on condition of anonymity.
Elizabete Aunina, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam, said: “If we look at the vague words of the Treaty of Montreux, it leaves a lot of room for interpretation.”
“It did not foresee that merchant ships could carry stolen goods…Turkey has already shown some commitment to sticking to the very basic interpretation of the Convention as a way to also protect itself from go deeper into the conflict.”
The European Union has imposed an embargo on Russian imports, but Greek and Maltese flagged tankers can be seen crossing the Bosphorus to the Black Sea and heading for Russian ports.
From his terrace overlooking the Bosphorus, Yoruk Isik, a 50-year-old geopolitical analyst born in Istanbul, has been observing the movements of ships on this key waterway between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean for a decade.
Isik uses a combination of real-time tracking apps, a strong network of spotters, and Russian and Ukrainian activists and satellite imagery to keep tabs on the ships.
“You can see end to end,” he said.
Some freighters loaded the wheat at Ukrainian ports under Russian blockade, such as Odessa, Chornomorsk and Mariupol, he said.
These ships are bound for Syria, where Russia has an operational base, then either for Lebanon or for Egypt, two countries which normally buy 81% and 85% respectively of their cereals from Ukraine and which face a food crisis because of it. war.
Isik also saw a flotilla of old Turkish boats “never seen before in the region” suddenly appear under another flag in the Russian port of Novorossiysk, which are “probably under contract with the Russian government”.
He gives a few examples among others: Kocatepe (today Tanzanian), Barbaros (Equatorial Guinea), Hizir (Malta) and Sampiyon Trabzonsport (Cameroon). Isik, who has a list of cargo ships belonging to the Russian Ministry of Defense and those of private companies operating on its behalf, believes that “what is happening is unacceptable”.
Africa has also been hard hit by the war in Ukraine. So when Macky Sall, head of the African Union, met Putin on Friday, he told him that the Russian blockade of Ukraine and therefore of its grain exports had aggravated the food crises in Africa and that the grain should be released. But Sall also said Western sanctions on Russia have worsened Africa’s lack of access to grain. The comment, which was music to Moscow’s ears, comes as no great surprise as many African countries have long-standing ties with Russia, some of which date back to when the Soviet Union supported wars independence of these countries against their colonial rulers. Putin made sure to cultivate these relationships and thus managed to avoid the wrath of many African countries over the war in Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit Turkey on Wednesday (June 8) to discuss the possibility of establishing “sea corridors” – although Russia is secretly exporting Ukrainian wheat for its own benefit, experts say.
“This is the information we get but we cannot stop, verify or question the intent of a cargo ship unless we sense a threat to Turkish peace or security,” the diplomatic source said.
EU considers tougher sanctions
“If Russia exports Ukrainian products, nobody allows Turkey to stop the ships,” said Yucel Acer, professor of international law at Ankara University, adding “unless there is a United Nations resolution” – which would not help, because Russia still holds the right of veto in the Security Council.
The European Commission is preparing its response, however, said a source in Brussels. She plans to introduce a new set of sanctions that would penalize Moscow if it refuses to pay European operators in case their ships are “caught in the act”.
“Most of these ships are covered by European and British insurance: with this new package, they will no longer be able to use them”, specifies the source.
“That should have a significant impact.”
But Turkey could do more, said Aunina of the University of Amsterdam.
“After the annexation of Crimea [on 18 March 2014]Turkey has technically banned Crimean ships from its ports: that could be done too!”
Before the war, Ukraine was on the way to becoming the world’s third largest wheat exporter. Africa and the Middle East both consume more bread products than other parts of the world and are therefore heavily dependent on Ukrainian exports. Africa imported $1.4 billion worth of wheat from Ukraine between 2018 and 2020, representing 12% of its wheat imports.