Russia recently agreed to a UN/Turkey sponsored plan to allow Ukrainian and Russian grain to be shipped out of the Black Sea to reduce the critical shortage of 30 million tons of grain in Africa and 40% rise in food prices in Africa and Syria. It was signed separately by Russia and Ukraine. Can Putin‘s grain game be trusted?
The deal took two months to achieve and allows for Ukrainian vessels with minesweeper escorts to guide grain ships through the minefields covering the southern Ukrainian coast of the Black Sea.
- A 120-day truce would be observed with no attacks on merchant vessels or port facilities.
- Turkey to inspect returning ships to allay Russian fears of arms smuggling.
- Russia to be able to export fertiliser and grain.
- A joint monitoring and coordinating centre to be established in Istanbul.
- Exports would commence from the port of Chernomorsk (SW of Odessa) and later from the port of Pivdennyi (NE of Odessa).
The UN World Food Programme estimates there are now 47 million people in a state of acute hunger due to the war. Blockade and mining of Black Sea ports prompted the EU to investigate the creation of corridors through Poland and Lithuania to the Baltic Sea, but these can only handle 1.5 metric tons per week. There are 12 rail crossings with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. But for 30 years the linking rail infrastructure has been neglected. Ukraine still uses the USSR broad gauge system of 1.524 mm width, whereas the others use the EU gauge of 1.432 mm. Hence grain must be transferred to different rail cars at the borders.
The Romanian port of Constanta is the biggest and deepest port with access to the Black Sea. Now that Ukraine has regained control of Snake Island, it offers another alternative route. 40% of its goods arrive by barge along the River Danube, with the rest by road and rail. The EU and Romania are funding an increase in trade handling capacity, but this will take time to implement.
Meanwhile, Russia steals Ukrainian grain
In early May there was clear satellite and GPS traffic data to show Russia was secretly exporting Ukrainian grain from Russian occupied regions. The ports used were Sevastopol in the Crimea and Berdyansk, SW of Mariupol in the Sea of Azov. A number of Russian ships have been identified in this activity. Three are from the Mastros line – Pozynich, Koshka and Nenosher.
The last two were seen being supplied by 15 trucks carrying 10 to 15 metric tons, each with no number plates, “Z” signs painted on them and escorted by military vehicles. One route took them through the Bosphorus to Latakia on the Syrian Mediterranean coast where they unloaded. CNN reports.
Another ship, the Zhibek Zholy, left Berdyansk and was spotted by the marinetraffic.com website moving at least 20 kilometres (12 miles) away from Turkey’s Black Sea port of Karasu before apparently switching off its transponder and disappearing from view. It was heading for the Russian mainland Black Sea port of Kavkaz. Ukraine complained to Turkey that they failed to impound it.
Putin’s tactical rethink
The Chief of UK’s MI6, Richard Moore, has recently said that the more sophisticated Western weapon systems recently delivered to Ukraine (HIMARS – High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) have allowed Ukraine to strike back behind Russian lines in the Donbas, destroying ammunition storages as well as surface-to-air missile systems. This could be a key to retaking the city of Kherson.
Is this a factor in Putin agreeing to the UN/Turkey deal? He also suggested that Berdyansk, Mariupol and Sevastopol ports are all ready to participate. None of these have been agreed by Ukraine.
Genuine Agreement or Tactical Game?
Kalibr is an expensive, highly accurate, sea-skimming missile that can be launched from ships, submarines or aircraft. They carry a high explosive warhead (450 kgs) that can be delivered within 50 metres of a target travelling at high speeds 4 to 5 metres above the water. The current submarine launched version has a range up to 2,000 kms. Russia is believed to have already used more than 50% of their high precision missiles (Kalibr costs $6.5m each).
As I write, the RN and RAF have been monitoring two Russian submarines transiting the North Sea and English Channel. They were spotted by HMS Portland and her Merlin ASW helicopter submerging off Bergen on 16 and 19 July after trying to transit the Greenland/Iceland and UK gap from the Russian northern fleet base in Murmansk undetected. I was involved in the development, prime contractor assessment, trials and introduction to Service of the Merlin over the last 20 years of my career, so I know her capabilities well. An RAF P8 Poseidon submarine hunter from RAF Lossiemouth was called in to assist.
The submarines are the Yasan class, cruise missile submarine Severodvinsk, lead ship of the Russian Northern Fleet, and the Akula class Vepr. Both carry Kalibr missiles.
They were handed over to NATO Baltic Fleet assets as they were, ostensibly, on their way to St Petersburg for Russian Navy Day on 31 July. (I was there in 2019). Is this a response to Sweden and Finland joining NATO? That is a possibility. In the Baltic they represent an increased strategic threat to NATO and the EU.
Meanwhile, the Istanbul registered Polarnet general cargo ship is loaded with grain and ready to depart when Russia gives agreement. President Zelensky does not miss a media opportunity.
Putin may have been forced into this tactical agreement because his front line troops in the Donbas are being cut off from their logistic supplies behind them; just as they were outside Kyiv. But let’s not be lulled into a false sense of optimism that this will lead to a general ceasefire anytime soon. Putin has not, and will not, change his long-term strategy. That must come from within Russia itself.
Latest news about grain ships
Reuters report that Lloyds insurers are preparing to cover Ukraine grain ships.
Further to the Russian smuggling of Ukrainian grain, the financial times writes about Russian darkened ships from occupied territories.