Sea Transportation: The Summer of Salvation Or Starvation

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June 11, 2022: The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February soon became a global problem because of the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports. The blockade was established and maintained by the Black Sea fleet, which currently has 16 surface ships and four submarines. The blockade was violently imposed with three foreign freighters damaged by Russian missiles as they attempted to leave and are now trapped in Odessa along with 22 million tons of food meant for export. Also trapped is 30 percent of the world’s grain exports, which normally comes from Ukraine and Russia via Black Sea ports. This was not part of the Russian war plan, which expected a quick (15 days) campaign that would end in Russian control of all of Ukraine. That was the first of many miscalculations the Russians made.

Ukrainians fought back, sinking the cruiser Moskva, flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, two landing ships and five Raptor assault boats in the first two months. Currently the Black Sea fleet consists only of frigates, corvettes, patrol boats, and four operational diesel-electric submarines. Since then, Russia puts just enough ships to sea between Sevastopol and Odessa to maintain the blockade of Odessa and Snake Island, which was captured early on by the Russians. Snake Island is near the entrance to the Danube River and the Ukrainian coast. Russia has had about ten amphibious and assault ships destroyed or damaged trying to resupply Snake Island, as well as evacuating wounded and bringing in troop replacements. Hundreds of Russian troops have been killed or wounded on or near Snake Island. Russia could just abandon Snake Island but that is seen as another defeat at a time where there were too many of those on land.

Russia is also trapped in the Black Sea because Turkey has invoked a 1930s treaty that controls access to the Black Sea in wartime. Russia cannot bring more warships into the Black Sea while NATO nations that border the Black Sea can because they are not fighting in Ukraine. The Russian Black Sea fleet is vulnerable to anti-ship missiles, of which Ukraine only has a few. These were locally designed and manufactured Neptune missiles and, after several were used to sink the Moskva, Russia used several of its ballistic missiles to damage the Ukrainian factory that built the missiles. Ukraine asked for Western anti-ship missiles and Russia delayed that for a while by threatening to use nukes. This is a major threat to the Black Sea fleet because part of the NATO military assistance is a constant supply of satellite photos of where Black Sea Fleet ships are as well as real-time surveillance of these waters between Sevastopol and Snake Island. This surveillance capability was used to locate the Moskva precisely so the Ukrainian Neptune missiles could hit it. With over a hundred anti-ship and similar guided missiles arriving the Black Sea Fleet is likely to suffer more losses.

Meanwhile most UN member nations are feeling the impact of food shortages and rising prices. This is a matter of life-or-death for many nations. The UN can’t do anything because Russia is one of the five UN members with a permanent veto over any such UN action.

NATO is preparing an alternate plan, that would establish a safe corridor from Odessa via coastal waters of NATO members Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey to the Turkish straits. For this to work, Ukraine must have the weapons to keep Russian ships out of that corridor until it reaches Romanian waters. That means Snake Island must be retaken. If Russia tries to attack the grain ships off the coasts of Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, NATO can fight back. The Ukraine/NATO “humanitarian corridor” is seen as a lifesaver for millions of people worldwide. Russian attacks on it would only add to Russia’s reputation as a heartless aggressor. This reputation has a lot of otherwise patriotic Russians turning against their own government, often in violent ways.

If Russia actively opposes Ukrainian efforts to regain control of offshore waters between Odessa and Snake Island, they are making another high-stakes gamble. In the next few months there will be a battle for control of that coastal corridor and Russia will have to send its Black Sea Fleet ships to sea to do it, which means those must get close enough to make them more vulnerable to anti-ship missiles.

Russian efforts to capture Odessa have failed and their hold on Ukrainian territory along the Black Coast is under attack. A major Russian offensive in Donbas failed, with heavy losses and the Ukrainians began retaking territory. The situation is worse in the north, as a Russian effort to surround the city of Kharkiv failed and the Ukrainian counterattack was even more successful, pushing some Russian forces back to the border. Russian occupied territory near the Black Sea coast is experiencing a growing Ukrainian guerilla movement, making the roads and lightly guarded countryside dangerous for the Russians to use. Russian efforts to disrupt Ukrainian grain production are only partially successful. But it all depends on the success of the humanitarian corridor and Ukrainian efforts to secure their portion of the corridor. The only alternative is an upgraded railroad network to move the grain to ports on the Baltic Sea coast. Construction on the railroads takes time and money and becomes the main target of Russian missile attacks. Russia means to destroy the Ukrainian economy and grain exports are a major component of that.

 


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