Naval convoys an option to run the blockade on Ukraine grain

Stockholm Institute paper passed to 'The National' calls for international fleet to escort grain ships out through Black Sea

A Ukrainian farm worker walks past grain in a warehouse destroyed by Russian tanks in Cherkska Lozova, Ukraine. Getty Images
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An international task force under UN protection should be used to gain access to Ukraine's grain stores and prevent a global food crisis as the conflict with Russia grinds on.

To prevent escalating food prices “becoming the trigger for social unrest in multiple locations”, a humanitarian food corridor should be created in the Black Sea using “military means”, said a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) titled “International Action to Relieve Food Security Crisis”.

Ukraine’s former economic minister welcomed the proposal, as “a really scary scenario was brewing”, with his country only currently able to export a fifth of its grain.

A British Royal Navy patrol ship in the Black Sea. AP

The steep rise in both food and fuel prices is increasing the risk of social unrest turning into violent upheaval.

“Finding solutions to global food insecurity has moved from being a humanitarian crisis to become an international security imperative,” the SIPRI paper said.

It urged the UN General Assembly to organise a fleet consisting of those countries most affected by food insecurity and with major powers such as China and India providing shipping.

“The scale and impact of the global food security crisis now justifies immediate action,” the report stated. “The obstacles preventing grain export from Ukraine by sea should be removed, including using military means if necessary.”

Russia has effectively imposed a military blockade on Ukraine's coast after attacking eight merchant ships early in the war. One ship also sank, possibly after hitting mine, creating prohibitive insurance costs.

A cargo carrying over 71,000 tonnes of Ukrainian corn is moored after loading in the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta. Reuters

“Major navies have played an important role in humanitarian relief operations in the past because they own some unique equipment that can be rapidly mobilised,” the report said.

“There are unarmed fast response ships owned by Nato navies in the Mediterranean that could reach [the Ukrainian port of] Odesa in less than 48 hours.”

With 20 Russian warships in the Black Sea, including up to four Kilo-class submarines, a high risk of confrontation is embedded in the Institute's proposal.

It says an armed convoy of destroyers, frigates and minesweepers could be rapidly assembled using special Nato supply vessels to carry grain out of Odesa.

The task force would also need marines to “prevent the boarding and seizure of ships” and warships with the ability to shoot down aircraft and cruise missiles, as well as preventing torpedo attacks from submarines.

But escalation could be reduced if the convoys were framed as an international humanitarian mission to resolve the global food crisis, said Dr Ian Anthony, the report’s author and director of the European Security Programme.

He highlighted the anti-piracy task force off Somalia which included Chinese warships as an example of multinational naval co-operation.

The report also referred to the 1980s Iran-Iraq war as a precedent for “naval operations to protect commercial shipping in war zones”, with US warships escorting oil tankers.

An Italian naval destroyer escorts a merchant vessel delivering humanitarian assistance to Somalia in the Indian Ocean in 2008. Reuters

Ukraine, which provides 42 per cent of the world’s sunflower oil and 10 per cent of its wheat and barley, is vital for Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt and Lebanon, where food prices have increased up to 50 per cent.

But about 25 million tonnes of Ukraine’s 2021 harvest is now lying in storage facilities that will be needed for the next harvest in summer.

Aivaras Abromavicius, who farms 41,000 hectares in Ukraine and was the country's former economic minister, told The National that one million tonnes had been exported via rail and road in April and 1.5 million tonnes were expected to be exported this month — compared to five million tonnes in normal times.

“I fully welcome this proposal and it could work. When the war started, countries were a bit cautious but everyone is becoming a bit braver by the day. This is vital for the whole word, not just the West.”

He added there was no shortage of ships or crews who knew the routes well and the port infrastructure around Odesa had been largely unharmed.

Ukrainian soldiers pass farm equipment destroyed by Russian tanks in Cherkska Lozova, Ukraine. Getty Images

But he urged the UN to move quickly.

“People might be dying as we speak so the minimum, the superpowers can do is offer military protection for a humanitarian cause,” he said.

The report suggested reassuring Moscow that the convoys will not be bringing in military equipment into Ukraine and that they should include “Russian observers”.

Another incentive to secure Russia’s agreement to the proposal would be to create a loophole in current sanctions that would allow Russia to gain some hard currency payments for its own grain exports.

SIPRI also proposed involving the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), as a convoy containing Chinese vessels “would be less vulnerable to interdiction or harassment”.

Turkey would play a major role in the proposal, as under the Montreux Convention, it can prevent ship movement via the Bosporus into the Black Sea, which it invoked in February.

But under the convention, Turkey, a Nato member, can suspend or lift the closure if it decides there is an “imminent danger” as a result of the war, the report argued.

“Turkey in itself is a major importer so I would assume it would be in their interests,” said Mr Abromavicius. “Turkey also likes to be at the epicentre of solving global issues, so I definitely see them playing a central role.

Updated: May 21, 2022, 5:00 AM