The arrival of three neutral merchant ships in Romanian waters close to a Ukrainian grain port on the Danube delta on July 30 would have merited little mention before February 2022. Now, with Russia effectively proclaiming that the northern Black Sea is its lake and that blockade runners face attack or seizure, it has caused a lot of excitement.

Open intelligence social media reports, where the story originated, said vessels were flagged in three countries, including Israel and Greece, but that all three were owned by Turkish-managed companies. Three more ships were said to be heading in the same direction. The icing on the cake was more open-source material showing an unusual number of US and NATO monitoring aircraft over the Black Sea on July 30, possibly shepherding the vessels toward safe harbor. The vessels do indeed appear to be near the Danube delta, but none is confirmed to have entered Ukrainian waters or a Ukrainian port.

It is far from clear that a sustained effort to break the blockade is underway, even if that’s what President Zelenskyy wants. He spoke to Turkey’s President Erdoğan about the issue on July 22 and to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

“We want our partners — the United Nations and Turkey — not to be afraid of doing everything possible so that even without the Russian Federation, we can use the Black Sea corridor,” Zelenskyy said on July 19. “We are not afraid. Ship companies approached us and said that they are ready to continue delivering grains.”

What we do know is that since Russia terminated the grain deal on July 17 and began targeting port infrastructure, a new blockade has been attempted in the northwestern Black Sea, close to the Ukrainian coast. Furthermore, because Russia has stated that it views all ships sailing to and from Ukraine as assisting Ukraine’s military operation, the area has become hazardous for shipping. Russia has likely laid naval mines in the Black Sea, shutting off some routes.

There are few NATO vessels in the Black Sea to organize escorts since the US and its allies have not sent warships through the Strait since the all-out war began. The only Black Sea navy with any meaningful capabilities — other than Russia’s — is Turkey’s, and it has received no orders to intervene in what might become open hostilities with Russia.

Thus, most likely, we are back to where we were, but worse. The current blockade resembles that enforced by Russia in the early days of the conflict in 2022, only that the long-term economic repercussions for Ukraine (and the global grain market) seem to be more serious.

Ukraine can use alternative routes, but there are problems. Congestion in Romanian ports, which can ship grain that arrives overland, increases. That puts a strain on ports, customs offices, and piloting services. The resulting slowdown in shipments causes global market volatility for everything from oil and food essentials to fertilizers. Moreover, stepped-up Russian attacks on Southern Ukrainian port and rail-and-road infrastructure makes logistics increasingly complicated, with the security risks rising for alternative inland routes.

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Ukraine has used land corridors through the European Union (EU) to transport almost 60% of total grain exports to global markets since the beginning of the war. To facilitate transit, the EU has contributed approximately $1.1bn through the Solidarity Lanes program, but the majority of this money goes toward trade and customs-related facilities, as building new infrastructure takes time. Major roads take time to build, and the rail gauge connection between the Soviet-standard railway system and the European system remains a logistical challenge.

There are two important so-called EU transport corridors through which most Ukrainian grain, as well as other foodstuffs (Ukraine is also a large producer of oilseeds), gets shipped to the world market. One is through Poland, with products passing through the country’s northwestern rail and road infrastructure to the so-called North Sea-Baltic European Corridor, with approximately 10% of total Ukrainian exports passing through Poland.

The other route is through Romania, which connects Ukraine to the Orient/East-Mediterranean corridor – also the most important route, given that the majority of Ukraine’s grain exports are to African and Middle Eastern countries. Over 50% of Ukrainian grain exports were routed through the Romanian port of Constanța last year, and, according to Lloyds List analysts, the country transited more than 70% of total Ukrainian exports through Europe. Once Russia ended the grain deal, pressure grew on the Romanian transit corridor.

Furthermore, Russia’s recent attacks on Ukraine’s southern ports included, for the first time, attacks on domestic infrastructure — the Danube ports of Reni and Ismail were targeted. The same night that the port of Reni was attacked (also damaging a Romanian ship), another attack targeted the Zakota bridge, which connects Odesa’s port to the rail and road infrastructure in the country’s southwest. This includes the ports of Ismail and Reni and was the fastest land transport route for Ukrainian produce to Romania. While Ismail and Reni are partially operating at the moment, no trains leave Odesa through the Zakota bridge. Instead, Ukrainian grain leaving Odesa is transported via alternate (longer) road and rail routes through Moldova.

It is worth noting that everyone in the region was prepared for Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal. Since July 15, the Moldovan railway has agreed to provide a 27% discount on grain transit and 39% for sunflower oil transit through its system. The Romanian ports these trains head for — Reni and Giurgiulești — are critical in allowing Ukrainian goods to enter the Romanian Danube, and thus NATO waters, where they are safe from Russian strikes. Beyond these towns is the Romanian port of Galați, where Bucharest recently upgraded capacity in anticipation of more cargo from Ukraine. For the same reason, the capacity of the Romanian Danube port of Brăila was also increased.

Romania is also aiming to raise vessel capacity and improve night signaling, allowing night exports on Sulina’s Danube arm, which would increase Ukrainian traffic by 50%. Through Sulina, Ukrainian grain is delivered to Galați, Brăila, and Constanța (from where it can also be sent to the global market via coastal sea lines). Romania recently stated that it is working on opening new crossing points with Ukraine, increasing staff at existing crossings, and bringing in retired and military pilots to speed up ship transit through the Danube canals.

While this is good news, there is a limit to what can be done from a purely logistical and economic standpoint. No matter how much EU funding is added for the build-up of new infrastructure or how much Romania or other countries increase capabilities and modernize existing infrastructure, securing the free flow of Ukrainian goods into the global market is unlikely to achieve free passage without military intervention.

Right now, Russia has an advantage in the Black Sea, especially in the northwest, because of the limited military capabilities of both Romania and Bulgaria. This is why both countries welcomed NATO’s July 26 decision to increase Black Sea surveillance. This is why including the Black Sea strategy in the US National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is more than symbolic – it is seen as a security guarantee for the region, a signal of engagement that Russia would take seriously.

It may even be that the US and others are willing to push harder to increase grain shipments through intervention. That would be surprising, however.

Antonia Colibasanu is a Senior Geopolitical Analyst and Chief Operating Officer at Geopolitical Futures. Her book, ‘The Geoeconomic Roundabout’, she discusses concerns around a new global economic war. She is also lecturer on international relations at the Romanian National University of Political Studies and Public Administration and Associate Senior Expert with the New Strategy Center in Bucharest. Prior to joining Geopolitical Futures in 2016 as Senior Analyst, Dr. Colibasanu spent more than 10 years with Stratfor in various positions.

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.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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