Nato warns Russia of 'miscalculation and escalation' in Black Sea

New Nato-Ukraine council meets for second time at Volodymyr Zelenskyy's request

Trucks board a ferry over the Danube to Ukraine.  Bloomberg
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Risks of “miscalculation and escalation” are rising in the Black Sea after Russian attacks against Ukrainian ports, a Nato-Ukraine council said on Wednesday, as the military alliance boosts its presence in the area.

Russia's recent attacks against Ukrainian ports “pose substantial risks to the stability of the Black Sea region, which is of strategic importance to Nato”, said the alliance's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a statement.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last week requested a meeting of the council as the security situation in the Black Sea sharply deteriorated after Russia's withdrawal on July 17 from a UN-Turkey brokered deal.

The agreement had enabled the export of 32 million tonnes of Ukrainian food via three of its Black Sea ports in the past year, according to the UN.

Russia has since intensified its attacks on Ukrainian port infrastructure. On Monday, Russian drones destroyed Ukrainian grain warehouses on the Danube River.

Nato is also “stepping up surveillance and reconnaissance in the Black Sea, including with maritime patrol aircraft and drones", according to the Nato-Ukraine council statement.

Nato allies noted that “Russia’s new warning area in the Black Sea, within Bulgaria’s exclusive economic zone, has created new risks for miscalculation and escalation, as well as serious impediments to freedom of navigation".

Russia has issued a Notice to Air Missions warning of naval military exercises in the Black Sea in an area that includes the exclusive economic zone of Bulgaria, a Nato member.

The notices are alerts sent to pilots of changes that could affect their flight route.

"Although this does not represent a formal breach of the international legal norms, it is not considered good practice," the information service of the Bulgarian government told The National.

Moscow has warned that ships heading to Ukraine's Black Sea ports could be considered military targets and is getting ready to enforce a blockade on Ukraine, according to the UK's Ministry of Defence.

The Sergey Kotov patrol ship “has deployed to the southern Black Sea, patrolling the shipping lane between the Bosphorus and Odesa,” said the Defence Ministry in a tweet.

“There is now the potential for the intensity and scope of the violence in the area to increase.”

The Nato-Ukraine council did not publicly address calls for the alliance to protect ships carrying Ukrainian grain with a “humanitarian flotilla.”

Sir John Chipman, director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, has argued for “a peaceful escort of ships taking grain and fertiliser to Africa and Asia.”

“Putin would not dare threaten it,” said Sir John.

Food security at risk

Tensions in the Black Sea have put food security across the world in jeopardy because many vulnerable countries rely on Ukraine's grain exports.

Before Russia's invasion last year, Ukraine exported 45 million tonnes of grain to the global market annually, a quarter of which went to low-income countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, according to the UN.

The Nato-UK council welcomed Turkish efforts at revitalising the grain deal and attempts made by other parties, such as the EU, to boost Ukraine's land exports.

Its statement said that Nato and Ukraine "strongly condemned Russia's decision to withdraw from the Black Sea grain deal and its deliberate attempts to stop Ukraine’s agricultural exports on which hundreds of millions of people worldwide depend".

In a tweet, Mr Zelenskyy welcomed the alliance's "clear and unequivocal condemnation" of Russia's exit from the deal.

The Nato-Ukraine council meeting, which was held at ambassadorial level at Nato's Brussels headquarters, was also attended by Sweden, which hopes to join the alliance after a Turkish Parliament vote in the coming months.

Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, and the Deputy Chief of Ukraine's General Staff, Oleksii Hromov, joined the meeting by video.

The Nato-Ukraine council allows Ukraine to hold equal status during meetings.

It was offered by Nato to Kyiv to boost its status within the alliance after Ukraine's request to become a full member was refused out of fear of entering an all-out war with Russia.

Its first meeting was held in Vilnius on July 12 in Mr Zelenskyy's presence. The Group of 7 countries in parallel offered long-term security commitments to Ukraine.

Later this week, Mr Putin is set to hold talks in Moscow about Ukraine with African leaders, many of whom are concerned by the impact of the war on global food security.

Moscow has suggested that it can help Africa with both commercial and free shipments of Russian grain.

Updated: July 26, 2023, 7:03 PM