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.   

  • Western allies and Ukraine should open a direct dialogue with Turkey about practical measures to restore Turkey’s treaty-based role to assure freedom of navigation through the straits.   
  • To alleviate the humanitarian problem of maritime mines — some of which have become un-anchored and are now floating freely in the Black Sea — increased demining capacity should be made available. Unmanned demining vessels are particularly important.  Ukraine is expecting to obtain minesweepers from the UK. But the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, and the United States all have relevant capacities to assist with demining. Unmanned demining vessels are particularly important. Because none of these states are belligerents in the war, with Turkish support, such vessels could be deployed directly in the Black Sea for humanitarian de-mining purposes or — if it eased transit through the Straits — they could be signed over to Romania as excess defense articles. Romania is both a NATO ally and a Black Sea littoral state which could conduct demining operations from its port at Constanza. As an alternative to entering the Black Sea through the Straits, some de-mining vessels could possibly also reach the Black Sea to Romania by transit down the Danube River. 
  • Under the rubric of the Ukraine Recovery Conference, governments should establish programs to provide war-risk insurance to shipping companies engaging in direct trade with Ukraine. Insurance must cover both the vessels and cargo. While the world’s largest companies may still decline to engage, many smaller shipping companies — which are already engaged in operating the grain corridor — would be keen to expand their trade provided they were fully insured. 
  • NATO nations should engage in non-threatening freedom of navigation operations in international waters in the Black Sea to maintain the principle of unimpeded transit. This could be limited to Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania, as NATO members with a Black Sea coastline. Or other NATO members could bring vessels temporarily into the Black Sea for such purposes under the terms of the Montreux Convention, as NATO members are non-belligerents in the conflict. 
  • Finally, NATO nations should issue a warning that any attacks, by any entity, on commercial shipping in international waters in the Black Sea will be considered an act of piracy and will not be tolerated. Such attacks could be met with a direct military response under international law. NATO states have the means to do this even without their vessels entering the Black Sea.   

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.

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