The agreement to open the Black Sea to Ukrainian grain shipments previously blockaded by Russia floats on rough seas. Russia has shown itself to be an unreliable partner, striking the port of Odesa less than 24 hours after inking the deal. Among Russia experts, there is little consensus that the agreement will prove lasting. On the War on the Rocks podcast, Michael Kofman noted that Moscow is likely to abide by the deal only temporarily. There is also evidence that Turkey is allowing itself to drift more closely into Russia’s orbit, raising doubts among observers that Ankara can be counted on as a neutral third party. The West ought to have a Plan B that keeps the agreement alive as long as possible.
Accordingly, on Aug. 1, the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College and the U.S. Navy League’s Center for Maritime Strategy sponsored a table-top exercise examining options for sustaining Ukrainian grain shipments in the Black Sea. Participants included subject matter experts on Russia, strategy, diplomacy, and maritime law; civilian mariners; and active-duty and retired naval officers. Here we share the results.
We found that if Russia chooses to reimpose its blockade, coalition efforts to break it without escalating to a shooting war will be extremely difficult. We also found there are other, less risky ways the grain deal can be reinforced, such as properly incentivizing civilian shippers and insurers, bolstering a Western military presence, and managing escalation risk with a coalition that includes non-NATO states. These measures could deter or delay Moscow from seeking to leverage the deal or abrogating it outright.
How Can Russia Sink This?
Under the agreement negotiated in Istanbul, Ukraine can ship grain from the ports of Odesa, Yuzhny, and Chernomorsk. Grain ships guided by Ukrainian pilots are navigating through a safe corridor in the Black Sea, where they are jointly searched by Russian, Turkish, and Ukrainian inspectors. The entire operation is monitored by a Joint Coordination Centre in Istanbul, with representatives from Ukraine, Russia, and Turkey. The deal is renewable every 120 days.
Currently, Russian grain and fertilizer shipments are also now flowing around the world and outpacing Ukrainian cargoes in the Black Sea, so it is unsurprising that Russia is holding to the agreement in the short term. But as the returns diminish, there is good reason to believe that Moscow won’t abide by this deal for long. Most grain importing countries have recently been able to purchase adequate staple grains, and wheat prices have dropped to pre-war levels, removing some incentives for recipient nations to pressure Russia. In addition, as sanctions-induced shortages continue to bite in other sectors, Moscow’s cost-benefit calculus may shift.
There are several ways Russia could imperil the agreement. For example, leadership in Moscow may attempt to use the deal as leverage for the removal of some sanctions, much as they seem to be attempting with energy supplies. They may also simply decide on a scheduled non-renewal of the agreement. Worse, Russia may allow the agreement to stand, but undercut it with attacks on landward grain trans-shipment points or other parts of the supply chain not included in the deal. Finally, a more nefarious option is a Russian attempt to kill the deal in a deniable way for political benefit: by covertly deploying drifting mines or conducting a clandestine attack against a grain ship, then blaming Ukraine. The Russian Navy has already proven itself willing to attack civilian vessels on several occasions. If Moscow chooses to kill the deal and return to blockading Ukrainian shipping, there is little anyone can do without taking on significant escalation risks.
All Eyes on Ankara
Turkey played the central role in the negotiations and will continue to do so in the agreement’s implementation. In addition to brokering the deal and hosting the Joint Coordination Centre, ship inspections are conducted in harbors determined by Ankara at the entry to and exit from the Turkish Straits. International conventions governing navigation of key European waters have also given Ankara power over any potential military action in the Black Sea. It has implemented Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, closing the Straits to Russian and Ukrainian warships and warning all states not to send warships through them. In the process, it has positioned itself for better and worse as guarantor of this deal.
The only other access point to the Black Sea is the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal. This canal links the Black Sea in Romania with the North Sea at Rotterdam. According to the 1948 Convention Regarding the Regime of Navigation on the Danube River, non-Danubian naval vessels are not allowed to navigate the river. Danubian nations wishing to send naval forces through the canal must have the permission of each state they wish to pass through. Serbia’s position astride the river and its cozy relationship with Russia make it unlikely that any countries on the northern half of the canal, such as Germany or the Netherlands, can make the transit.
But Turkey remains the fulcrum balancing the agreement, and it will be under tremendous pressure if Russia shows signs of backing out. Ankara’s open attitude regarding Moscow’s blandishments requires careful monitoring, and it is necessary to find ways to encourage Turkey to retain its stance as a more-or-less neutral third-party guarantor of the agreement. There is no way in for non-riparian warships to enter the Black Sea without Ankara’s unlikely permission. As a result, U.S. and allied warships cannot simply take matters into their own hands and steam into the Black Sea to conduct escort operations and counter-blockade by direct confrontation, as others have proposed.
Civilian Maritime Requirements
Providing assurances to civilian commercial shipping companies is critical. A major challenge they face is ensuring that there are enough qualified mariners to crew the ships either stuck in Ukrainian ports or willing to sail through an active war zone. A second issue is finding insurance for vessels making the transit in and out. War-risk and breach insurance prices skyrocketed in February, and through late July, insurance companies were largely unwilling to accept the risk of insuring vessels that were likely to be fired upon. Only recently, Lloyd’s of London announced that it would provide some coverage, but significant risk remains and costs are high.
Indeed, a critical issue on both subjects boils down to expense. The need to pay increased wages, bonuses, and insurance premiums may very well disincentivize companies by pricing them out or limiting return on investment. A solution to this challenge is for wealthy nations who support humanitarian aid to Ukraine but are wary of providing too much overt military support, such as Germany and France, to pay the insurance premiums and bonuses to sailors. Insurance companies themselves likewise are likely to want grain ships moving. If ships are stuck in port, they would be paid off as losses.
Civilian shipping and insurance companies will also require security assurances if Russia endangers the grain deal. Insurance companies in particular would likely expect merchant ships to have naval escorts or accompaniment in the Black Sea and possibly the Mediterranean. They are also likely to demand measures to reduce the risk of ships striking mines or other more surreptitious measures of attack. In short, military measures may be unavoidable.
Military Escorts for Grain Ships?
Again, the critical limiting factor regarding escort operations in the Black Sea is Turkey’s refusal to allow any warships through the Straits. Because of this limitation, only Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey itself are currently able to conduct escort or accompaniment. But the Romanian and Bulgarian navies lack the capability and the capacity to carry them out. If it becomes necessary to escort or accompany ships in the face of Russian resistance, only Turkey has the forces able to do so. Even so, much of Turkey’s naval force is concerned with other challenges.
Non-Black Sea nations may be able to provide assistance in other forms to bolster any potential Turkish efforts. Potential mission areas include mine counter-measures; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; search and rescue; and salvage operations. These missions do not require maritime transport to access the Black Sea. Airborne mine countermeasures and expeditionary mine countermeasures teams operating in the safe transit corridor can reduce the risk of floating mines or covertly placed moored mines.
Airborne and space-based observation is already underway. A significant U.S. presence in Romania and regular intelligence flights over the Black Sea by U.S. collection aircraft are providing situational awareness in the region. Augmenting this effort with maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft over the safe corridor can provide improved submarine detection as well as search and rescue capability. In addition, airborne early warning aircraft can provide 24-hour coverage of potential threats over the western Black Sea. Electro-optical systems on these aircraft may also be used in a strategic communications campaign designed to check Russian misinformation.
But these operations also need more teeth to credibly demonstrate to Russia the prospective cost of breaking the grain deal and to forestall a potential naval standoff. The Truman carrier strike group has been operating in the Mediterranean since winter. It can provide overwatch and force protection for ships and intelligence aircraft from a position in the Aegean Sea, warning off, among other threats, Russian pilots who stray too closely to coalition assets. But a single carrier strike group’s resources are finite, and it may be necessary to surge forces to protect grain shipments. These surge forces might be supplied by the French, Italian, and British aircraft carriers, which would also provide a strong signal of international unity. NATO’s Maritime Command, headquartered in the United Kingdom could play a critical role in brokering a maritime coalition of the willing among European nations.
Such an international response would require significant organizational measures to create a common operating picture among multinational partners. The Joint Coordination Centre, set up to monitor cargo transit operations, is not a candidate as a coordinating body. The intelligence risk of Russians co-located in this center would endanger its effectiveness. Instead, the international community can learn from Combined Maritime Forces model in Bahrain. This organization includes 34 member states and is focused on regional counter-piracy and maritime security. The Black Sea equivalent can be based in Istanbul. Here, information could be shared, a common operating picture developed and disseminated for military and civilian vessels, and responses coordinated.
If escort and other military operations are introduced, escalation is a dangerous possibility. The Biden administration and its potential coalition partners ought to (and surely would) have a frank discussion about levels of strategic and operational risk they are willing to adopt before embarking on any response to Russian malfeasance. However, it bears noting that direct confrontations between the Russian military and NATO do not directly lead to war. It is political decision-making following the interactions that may or may not lead to war. There is room for diplomacy.
At the same time, risk mitigation measures also exist. In the first place, Washington would not go it alone. Russia’s hunger blockade has already had far reaching implications across the globe, the recent crisis in Sri Lanka notwithstanding. To deny Russia propaganda advantage and reduce the chances for unintended escalation, Washington can seek to involve non-NATO states as the leading organizers of the response. An obvious supra-national candidate for running these operations might be the World Food Program. A clear candidate for operational leadership may be India, which enjoys a friendly relationship with Russia, but has also expressed concern about its own food security. As others have suggested, recipient state groups such as the African Union, Gulf Cooperation Council, or Organization of Islamic Cooperation could lease grain ships for exports from Ukraine. This step may potentially incentivize shippers and create more downsides for Russia to target those ships should it decide to leave the deal using violence.
Strategic communications may also help by indirectly pressuring Moscow to abide by the agreement. Establishing the story of the success of the mission and laying the groundwork with the public on who is being a responsible actor and how the mission is being accomplished may allow at-risk recipient nations friendly to Moscow to argue for continuing to allow grain flows. Clear, shareable, and swiftly releasable information along with a strategic communications narrative that demonstrates Russian culpability and knocks down any Russian attempts at blame shifting may avert a dangerous naval standoff and disincentivize Moscow’s exit from the deal.
It is not good policy to assume that the grain agreement will hold. It sails on rough seas because Russia’s interests in abiding by it are ephemeral. As the world watches grain ships in the Black Sea with bated breath, policymakers should be working to shore up the agreement. While the interwoven measures noted here can provide a good starting point from which to do so, they are also indicative of the complex nature of the challenge. It will take time to inaugurate them. Preventing Russia from using the deal to extract sanctions relief is a critical priority, but Moscow must also be convinced that a coalition of nations is willing to defend the agreement, and that leaving it has costs of its own.
Michael B. Petersen is the director of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College.
Adm. (ret.) James G. Foggo III is the dean of the U.S. Navy League’s Center for Maritime Strategy and former Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa.
The opinions presented here are their own, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.