An aerial view of the Black Sea harbour of Constanta, Romania. Image: Daniel Mihailescu / AFPAlso Read: Russia exits grain deal: Food inflation concerns back with a bang
Since exiting a landmark UN-brokered Grain Initiative last month, a Russian warship has fired on a merchant shipping vessel in the Black Sea for the first time, on Sunday, triggering acute concerns among shipowners, insurers, and commodity traders about the potential dangers of getting ensnared into the conflict. As a result, merchant ships have started backing up into lanes around the Black Sea, at Musura Bay, the Romanian port of Constanta, and at Ukrainian ports including Odesa, even as the ports have struggled to clear backlogs amidst the growing unease.
A file photo of a worker turns a valve at the Rosneft oil refinery in Tuapse at the Russian Black Sea coast. Image: Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters
In retaliation, Ukrainian officials have warned that Russian ports and ships in the Black Sea — including tankers carrying millions of barrels of oil to Europe — could be attacked by the Ukrainian military as part of efforts to weaken Moscow's war machine. Last month, Russia shipped almost 59 million barrels of crude oil, a third of its overall exports, from the strategic Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, according to intelligence firm Kpler. Of that, 32 million barrels went to EU countries. The port also handles other fuels like diesel, gas oil and naphtha in addition to grain destined for the global market.
Ships awaiting inspections are seen anchored off the Istanbul coastline in Turkey. Image: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
The Black Sea is an oval-shaped basin strategically situated at the South Eastern extremity of Europe. It is bordered by Ukraine to the North, Russia to the North East, Georgia to the East, Turkey to the South, and Bulgaria and Romania to the West. It links to the Sea of Marmara through the Bosphorus, and then to the Aegean Sea through the Dardanelles and has traditionally been Russia’s warm water gateway to Europe.
For Russia, the Black Sea is both a stepping stone to the Mediterranean as well as a strategic buffer between NATO and itself. As the economic gateway to key markets in southern Europe, Russia has been making efforts to gain complete control over the Black Sea since the Crimean crisis of 2014. A bulk carrier transits the Turkish-controlled Bosphorus. Image: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Although Crimea and the southern Russian port city of Novorossiysk provide the Russian navy and tankers with access to warm water ports, all ships entering or leaving the Black Sea must past through the Turkish-controlled straits of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, two strategically important passageways between the Black and Mediterranean Seas. A file photo of NATO and Romanian officials at the inauguration ceremony of a missile defense facility in Deveselu, Romania. Image: Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images
The Black Sea’s proximity to the Russian heartland means that a considerable part of European Russia could be within the range of the US sea- and land-based intermediate-range missiles. Russian officials have complained that the deployment of the NATO missile defense system in Romania represents the encroachment of the US strategic infrastructure in Russia’s neighborhood and is intended to undermine Russian security.
Young mothers wait for high-nutrition foods and health services at the Tawkal 2 Dinsoor camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Baidoa, Somalia on February 14, 2022. Image: Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP
It has been a month since Russia refused to renew the agreements allowing grain exports through The Black Sea. There will be a significant reduction in the volume of grains reaching the people who need it most. The most vulnerable countries will pay the heaviest price. According to the UN, 735 million people worldwide suffer from hunger, and one in five people on the continent of Africa go hungry. A file photo of women collecting supplies brought by the World Food Programme at the internally displaced person camp (IDP) in Farburo in Gode, South Eastern Ethiopia. Image: Yonas Tadesse / AFP
The Black Sea grain initiative was carried out by Russia and the UN with the support of the international community. It benefited the most vulnerable countries and enabled the World Food Programme to feed thousands of people in need in Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. In one year, the agreements had enabled 33 million tonnes of food commodities to reach 45 countries. A part of 25,000 tonnes of Ukrainian wheat is seen that was loaded onto an UN-chartered vessel MV Valsamitis to be shipped to Kenya and Ethiopia, at the port of Chornomorsk, east of Odessa on the Black Sea coast, February 18, 2023. Image: Oleksandr Gimanov / AFP
The Black Grain Initiative had enabled food prices, which were at a record high in March 2022 when the war began, to fall by almost a quarter until the abrupt cessation of agreements by Russia. This has now led to greater volatility in grain prices. According to reports, Russia is building up stocks and harvests to sell grain, which is not subject to any sanctions, at higher prices. Ukraine, despite its situation, has launched the ‘Grain from Ukraine’ initiative to help vulnerable countries. To curb this initiative too, Russia has resorted to bombing the ports of Odesa, Mykolaiv and Chormonorsk to destroy the grain silos. The EU, meanwhile has set up Solidarity Lanes, enabling the export of over 38 million tonnes of grain from Ukraine by road, rail, and river.