Breaking Russia’s Ukrainian Grain Blockade


Servicemen from a combined sapper team of the International Mine Action Centre under the Russian Armed Forces clear mines from the Mariupol Commercial Sea Port on May 23.


Vladimir Gerdo/Zuma Press

Vladimir Putin’s

Ukraine war is spreading humanitarian and economic hardship far and wide, and on deck is a global food shortage. The world needs a strategy to break Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports so it can export food and other goods, and that probably means a plan to use warships to escort merchant ships out of the Black Sea.

Russia’s military is denying Ukrainians use of their own ports. Mariupol on the Sea of Azov has been destroyed and is now in Russian hands. Ukraine still holds Odessa, but Kremlin warships won’t let commercial ships into or out of that Black Sea port.

The consequences include shortages and higher food prices as prospects rise that Ukraine’s annual crop production won’t make it to world markets. Ukraine exports about 14% of the world’s corn, 10% of its wheat, and 17% of barley, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Roughly 50 countries rely on Russia and Ukraine for at least 30% of wheat imports.

“There are an estimated 22 million tons of grain sitting in silos in Ukraine right now, food that could immediately go toward helping those in need if it can simply get out of the country,” Secretary of State

Antony Blinken

said last week.

Ursula von der Leyen,

president of the European Commission, added Tuesday that Russia “is using hunger and grain to wield power.”

The commission has been trying to help move goods faster, but Ukraine and the rest of Europe rely on different railway infrastructure. In normal times, Black Sea ports account for 90% of Ukraine’s grain and oilseed exports, the commission says.

The civilized world will have to act soon to prevent this from becoming an even larger humanitarian crisis. United Nations Secretary-General

António Guterres

has been trying to strike a deal to free up exports, and he visited Moscow in April to ask Mr. Putin to help. That would be the best solution.

But asking the Russian for mercy or restraint has proven to be a fool’s errand, as French President

Emmanuel Macron

has shown to a fare-thee-well. Mr. Putin doesn’t mind inflicting more pain on Ukraine, and he probably views the global food pressure as a way to get NATO and other nations to coerce Ukraine to settle the war on his terms. The world will have to do more to prevent hunger and the risk of unrest that soaring food prices could trigger. Recall how the Arab Spring began in Tunisia.

If diplomacy doesn’t work, former Army Gen. Jack Keane suggests an international food and commercial escort operation may be needed, led by the U.S. This is best planned and pitched as a humanitarian operation. The mission would be to form an international coalition of warships to escort commercial vessels safely out of Odessa and the Black Sea. This would work as a coalition of the willing, and not a North Atlantic Treaty Organization project that would let Mr. Putin claim it is another NATO provocation.


One practical obstacle is negotiating with Turkey, which controls access to the Black Sea under the 1936 Montreaux Convention. Turkey won’t want to offend Russia, but it also would be under considerable world pressure to allow such a mission if food prices soar and hardship expands across the world. Better if the negotiations begin quietly now.

There are military risks. One is from mines that Ukraine has laid to dissuade a Russian naval assault on Odessa. But the U.S. has ships with de-mining capability.

Some critics will claim an escort mission would be too risky as a naval version of a “no-fly zone.” But it is much different. The escort ships would stick to international waters. They would not be denying those waters to Russian ships, but only ensuring that commercial vessels can travel safely. This is justified under the long-time British and then American roles in guaranteeing open international sea lanes. No military engagement would be needed if Russia doesn’t interfere.

The U.S. has marshalled allies for such a mission twice in recent decades. In the late 1980s the U.S. reflagged and protected Kuwaiti oil tankers as they sailed out of the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq tanker war. The Trump Administration led a similar if more modest coalition in 2019 to protect oil tankers moving through the Strait of Hormuz.

Mr. Putin’s invasion is now entering its fourth month and may go on for many more. The economic suffering will increase, and food shortages will turn into political stress around the world. If Mr. Putin won’t yield, the civilized world, led by the U.S., will have to find a way to break his Ukraine food blockade.

Review & Outlook: By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has unified the NATO alliance, which will be stronger with Finland and Sweden as members. Images: Sputnik/TT News Agency/Lehtikuva/Reuters Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the May 25, 2022, print edition as ‘Breaking Putin’s Food Blockade.’


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