How Russia and Ukraine are vying for control of vital grain routes | Russia–Ukraine War
From the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one of Moscow’s first strategic objectives quickly became apparent as its armored columns advanced along the coast with the aim of seizing the Ukrainian coastline and cut it off from the sea. Seizure of Ukrainian ports would strangle the country economically at a time when Ukraine most needs funds to fend off Russia.
Several months in and Russia was partially successful. Two of Ukraine’s five main commercial ports have been taken – Berdyansk and, after a brutal siege, what remains of the port of Mariupol. Both are in the northeast of the Black Sea.
Commercial shipping from the Black Sea is well placed, having immediate access to both the countries bordering the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal and markets beyond.
Ukraine accounts for 9% of world wheat, 15% of its corn and 44% of world sunflower oil exports. A quarter of the wheat in Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan comes from Ukraine.
The country’s main port, Odessa, is still in Ukrainian hands, as is Mykolaiv. Together they accounted for 80% of pre-war Ukrainian grain exports. Attempts by Russia to seize these important trading hubs and the surrounding territory have failed and its advance has stalled. Russian units are now facing increasing resistance as Ukrainian units have launched a brutal counterattack against Russian forces in Kherson and near Mykolaiv, as they struggle to retain control of this vital southern coastal sector.
Odessa, Mykolaiv and Chernomorsk still operate as ports, but Russia has launched a blockade to ensure no grain leaves the country. Commercial shipping has been put on hold, sea mines have been laid in the waters leading to the port, and the entire Black Sea area is under constant surveillance by Russian warships and fighter jets.
The key to this blockade was Snake Island. A small islet 48 km (30 miles) off the coast of Ukraine and Romania, it was taken by Russia in the early days of the war. Strategically placed, it controls the waters approaching the last three Ukrainian commercial ports and is heavily armed by Russia.
The Ukrainian navy is almost non-existent and at the start of the conflict, Russian warships operated with impunity. Everything changed when the Russian heavy missile cruiser Moskva was sunk on April 14. The mighty warship – the pride of the Russian Navy – was hit and sunk by two Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles about 96 km (60 miles) from Odessa. The Neptune is locally made and based on an earlier Russian design. With a range of 280 km (174 miles), it is designed to drop between 3 meters and 10 meters (10-33 feet) above the surface as it approaches its target, making it difficult to detect. Its 145 kg (320 lb) warhead is designed to sink ships up to 5,000 tons, but two strikes on the Moskva did so much damage that it eventually sank, much to the chagrin of the Russian Navy, which withdrew its warships from Ukraine. coast. Snake Island has since taken on greater prominence and has been heavily fortified with advanced weaponry.
Considered an “unsinkable destroyer” by some analysts, the island bristles with search radars, at least five Tor and two Pantsir anti-aircraft systems, and fuel and ammunition dumps. Protected by trenches and revetments, it is now a much more difficult target for the Ukrainian army to destroy.
Several attacks by Ukrainian armed TB2 drones did damage, but many of these valuable weapons were also shot down in the process. Heavily armed, the Russian forces present on the island are increasingly able to repel attacks.
The expected arrival of offensive systems like long-range artillery and S-400 air defense units would allow Russia to dominate the airspace over southern Ukraine in addition to the northwestern part of the Black Sea. Adding artillery would allow the island to act as a fire base from which land targets could be attacked and destroyed.
The Ukrainian military, acutely aware of Snake Island’s strategic position, continued attacks that helped degrade the Russian military presence there. A helicopter supplying troops was shot down, at least one radar site was damaged and a supply boat delivering troops, food and an air defense system to the garrison was hit and sunk by a newly supplied Western Harpoon missile , with the aim of driving the Russian forces off the island.
Russia still controls Snake Island and its position and heavy defenses are a thorn in Ukraine’s side. The battle between the two sides has intensified as Ukraine tries to regain control of the islet, striking other targets in order to ward off Russian forces.
Changes in naval tactics
On June 20, a Russian offshore oil rig was badly damaged in air raids – by American-made artillery rockets, according to the Russians. Located off the coast of Crimea, the rig is the latest target considered by Ukraine as it seeks to increase the number of targets it strikes, in hopes of spreading out Russian forces and defenses over a wide area, thinning them out and depleting the large Russian reserves. of military equipment. The Kerch Bridge connecting the Crimean Peninsula to the mainland would now be a target, forcing the Russian military to spend even more resources defending it.
As attacks gather pace, more subtle weapons have been used by Russia as it tries to ensure civilian shipping is not tempted to confront it and use commercial ports still under Ukrainian control . Sea mines have been laid at the entrance to these ports, notably in Odessa.
Although these ships might have been tempted to say that Russia was bluffing about whether they would be attacked by manned weapon systems, the mines are automated and will detonate regardless of the nationality of the ship that collides with them. they.
One of the dangers of floating mines is that they end up drifting. Warnings were issued to maritime traffic in the Black Sea and mines were spotted as far south as the Bosphorus. The Turkish military defused them and urged, along with a host of other countries, to find a quick solution. Turkey controls a large part of the Black Sea, which it considers to be of vital interest to the country. It also controls – and is its guardian – the only waterway that leads from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, making Turkey a strategic player in the region.
A Turkish military delegation is due to visit Moscow to negotiate the safe passage of commercial vessels to Ukrainian commercial ports, in a bid to revive stalled grain exports that are vital for food production in countries around the world. . There are fears that a growing food crisis – compounded by global weather patterns affecting harvests and a general slowdown in the global supply chain – could begin to have serious consequences for regional stability if these vital products do not start flowing. in significant quantities. Meanwhile, Russian missiles continue to strike Ukraine’s economic infrastructure and grain silos in Mykolaiv have been badly damaged, further hampering Ukraine’s ability to supply the large quantities needed.
The naval war in Ukraine, the mining of its ports and the attacks on strategic targets are Russia’s attempt to strangle Ukraine economically, depriving it of the raw materials and funds needed to wage an industrial war. In 2020, Ukraine’s exports amounted to $52.7 billion and it badly needs the cash, as the prospect of a longer war now looks more likely.
Ukraine’s vital crops are due to be harvested in weeks, adding to its sense of urgency. Although other routes are being considered for its exports, such as a route to Baltic ports, most are overland and simply do not have the capacity to export these products in the quantities needed. A single container ship is equivalent to 50 grain trains and with at least 80% of all world trade traveling by sea, control of these Black Sea ports is vital.
Russia’s grip on Ukraine’s vital trade arteries shows no signs of loosening, despite international pressure. The effect of the blockade is not only being felt in Ukraine, but around the world, as demand and prices for basic foodstuffs continue to rise. With Ukraine’s harvest season nearly upon us, most of its able-bodied population caught up in the fighting, and continued attacks on the country’s agricultural infrastructure, the likelihood that Ukraine will be able to export the quantities it needs to sustain its war with Russia is starting to fade, which is exactly what Russia is hoping for.