The global attention seems to be over-focused at the moment on the land war that is taking place between the valiant Ukrainians and the Russians.
In the process, much has not been talked about Russia’s virtual naval blockade through the Black Sea of Ukraine, which is not only depriving Kyiv of receiving the promised arms from the US and other western countries easily and quickly but also preventing it from exporting its famed agricultural resources that feed millions in Europe, Africa, Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Russians have now captured the port cities of Mariupol and Berdyansk, shelled Mykolayiv and Odessa, and blocked the Black Sea for merchant’s vessels. They have not formally announced the blockade and therefore it is legally unofficial. But that does not hide the fact that the blockade is in force with a de facto status.
Military supply or assistance via the sea would have immensely helped Ukraine fight the Russians in the East far more quickly than trucking them from the border with Poland across the entire length of the country.
Commercially, the effective blockade has literally stopped Ukrainian exports. It may be noted that Ukraine is dubbed as the “breadbasket of Europe” because of its huge food market.
In the year 2019-20, Ukraine was the world’s second-largest exporter of grain. In 2021, its agricultural exports increased by 25%. Wheat, barley, corn, other cereals, and vegetable oil are the key Ukrainian goods.
The country is also the world’s fifth-largest exporter of chicken. And due to Ukrainian access to the Black Sea, local goods were sold worldwide: from the EU to Indonesia, Egypt, China, and Pakistan. According to the Institute of Agrarian Economics, the majority of goods went to Asia, Africa, and the EU.
But the blockade has put all the buyers at the risk of being left without Ukrainian food products. As it is, neutral commercial vehicles are already burdened with costlier oil prices and higher insurance coverage because of the war.
So much so that WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has warned of risks to global food security, particularly for poorer countries in North Africa and the Middle East, the Sahel region, and East Africa.
Of course, Ukraine is trying to send food items through the much longer rail routes via Eastern Europe. But, that also may be affected due to the inland battles.
Although Ukraine is a large country, the invasion is occurring in the part where most of their grain is produced. The growing season in Ukraine – they plant wheat in the fall and harvest in July and August.
Their corn is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall – has been under bombardment. Even the farmers need fuel for tractors, but all oil terminals in the country are nearly destroyed. And almost half of the country’s territory needs to be surveyed because of mining.
Besides, much of its commercial storage and transportation infrastructure is out of service and will remain so for a considerable period.
In other words, with ports being blocked and farmlands turning into battlefields in Ukraine, the world is on the verge of a food crisis. Even the Russian food market is affected in a way because of its own blockade, but for the moment this is a great military success for the Russians and the Russian Navy.
For Russia, the invasion of Ukraine is not only a land war. The invasion is a naval war as well. Moscow, whether as the capital of Russia or the capital of the erstwhile Soviet Union, has always tried to establish its total command of the Black Sea. And those familiar with the classical naval Warfare know that there are two ways of establishing that command.
One is to defeat the enemy and its battle fleet. The other is stopping the enemy’s entrance into the sea either through blockade or adopting sea-denial strategies of sinking their fleet when on move or making their mobility ineffective while still in port.
Cdr Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong, a US naval officer has talked of the “3 B’s” of naval strategy: blockade, bombardment, or putting boots on the ground via amphibious landing. Russians have done exactly that.
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, it retook complete control of the naval base at Sevastopol, which had, what was said, the possession of three-quarters of the Ukrainian Navy.
Soon after the February- invasion this year, it was from Sevastopol that the Russians used missile corvettes and frigates as well as some Kilo-class submarines, joined by the old Slava-class cruiser Moskva as the flagship. These were too powerful against the smaller Ukrainian patrol forces.
Russians then quickly created a blockade of Ukraine by closing the Kerch Strait, which connects the smaller Sea of Azov to the Black Sea and established complete control of the Sea of Azov, threatening ships off Odessa and other Ukrainian ports.
With total control of the Sea of Azov and the blockade holding, the Russian Navy launched its first amphibious landings as a part of the offensive against geopolitically the most significant port city of Mariupol. Its control now makes the Sea of Azov a “Russian lake.”
Secondly, control of Mariupol makes it easy to establish a land bridge between Russian territory and the “island” of Crimea which is surrounded by Ukrainian territory. In fact, the “annexation” of Crimea was incomplete without the control of Mariupol.
Historically, the safety and security of the Sevastopol naval base, the most important naval base for centuries in the northern Black Sea, depended on the control of Mariupol.
Thus, with both Mariupol and Sevastopol under Russian domination, now the Sea of Azov has been closed off and Ukrainian ports are blocked, sealing off both military and commercial traffic.
But then, can the Russians maintain their naval supremacy for long in Ukraine? Cdr Armstrong is not so sure.
As he says, “On April 13, 2022, Ukrainian forces reported their first successful cruise missile attacks on the Moskva. Details are unconfirmed, but we do know that the ship sank hours later while being towed to Sevastopol.
While Ukraine has a limited number of the indigenously produced Neptune missile systems, the United Kingdom has promised coastal defense cruise missiles as part of their most recent aid package. And cruise missiles are not the only weapons available for taking enemy ships under fire.
The Bayraktar drones which have been used successfully against Russian armor also exist in a maritime version used by the Ukrainian navy and represent a capability that can be used against Russian warships. Additionally, munitions like the American Switchblade drones and laser-guided mortars have a more limited range but could be useful in the near littoral.
“Additionally, a recent list of new security assistance assets from the US government includes ‘Unmanned Coastal Defense Vessels.’ What these vessels look like, or their capabilities, are not clear since the US Navy does not actively deploy anything that fits that description.
It appears that the sinking of the Moskva has caused Russian warships to push themselves further offshore in order to avoid missile attacks. This transitions what had been a relatively close blockade to a far blockade and potentially opens up the seas for Ukrainian small craft to begin operating.”
In sum, thus, while the Russians control the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, the Ukrainian military can still use land-based anti-ship systems to a great effect to challenge that domination.
Experts think that the destruction of the Saratov landing ship at Berdyansk will likely damage the confidence of the Russian Navy to conduct operations in close proximity to the coast of Ukraine in the future. At least, Ukraine’s next best port city of Odessa is safe at the moment.
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has been commenting on politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. CONTACT: [email protected]
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