Global Europe Brief: Unblocking the Black Sea might not fly

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In this week’s edition: Unblocking the Black Sea, EUCO summit preview and enlargement hopes.


Russia’s long-term aim to turn Ukraine into a landlocked country risks stoking a global food crisis, and there are few options to avert it.

Before the war, Ukraine exported around five million metric tons of grain and up to 700,000 tons of sunflower oil per month via the Black Sea. According to the latest estimates, Ukrainian farmers now have around 22 million tons of grain stuck in warehouses.

With Mariupol neutralised, Moscow’s troops already occupy large swathes of southern Ukraine along the coast of the Sea of Azov, having established the long-sought land bridge between Russia and Crimea.

Odesa, Ukraine’s largest port and a major gateway for grain shipments, is being shelled and could be the next target.

With the Russian navy already blocking exports from leaving, further and prolonged occupation could risk a global food crisis as farmers struggle to ship harvested crops out of the country’s critical Black Sea ports.

“Truly, failure to open those ports in Odesa region will be a declaration of war on global food security. And it will result in famine and destabilisation and mass migration around the world,” David Beasley, the executive director of the United Nation’s World Food Programme, warned this week.

Alternative routes by rail through Belarus or road to the Baltic Sea ports or Romania are currently being explored but have severe practical drawbacks relating to infrastructure, delivery times as well as the worry that Minsk will ask for the lifting of current EU sanctions in return for free passage of goods.

Military experts warned early on that Russia’s plan is to dominate the Black Sea and use a global food crisis as a bargaining chip as the war continues.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted at this during a call on Saturday (28 May) with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, seemingly floating the proposal of reopening the Odesa port for grain exports in exchange for lifting Western sanctions.

In the Kremlin’s statement after the call, Putin told both leaders that “Russia is ready to help find options for unhindered grain exports, including the export of Ukrainian grain from the Black Sea ports.”

However, the readout added: “Putin explained the real reasons for the difficulties with food supplies, which were the result of the erroneous economic and financial policies of Western countries, as well as the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by them.”

The Russians have their navy centrally located at Sevastopol in Crimea. Military experts say they cannot exclude the possibility they will strike ships loaded with Ukrainian grain or for Ukrainians to hit Russian vessels loaded with looted wheat.

But what can be done to stop Russia from taking control of the Black Sea?

One option put forward appears to be a risky naval escort.

Earlier this week, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabriel Landsbergis proposed that NATO or other Western countries ensure the safe export of grain from the port of Odesa by securing their passage.

Speaking alongside UK’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, later on, Landsbergis said the proposed coalition would not be coordinated at the NATO level, but “this does not mean that individual NATO countries could not take part in this operation”.

“This would be a non-military humanitarian mission and is not comparable with a no-fly zone,” Landsbergis said.

“In this endeavour, military ships or planes or both would be used to ensure that the grain supplies can leave Odesa safely and reach the Bosphorus without Russian interference. We would need a coalition of the willing – countries with significant naval power to protect the shipping lanes and countries that are affected by this”.

So far, the UK has backed Lithuania’s call for a naval coalition ‘of the willing’ to restart exports through the Black Sea.

The inspiration appears to have come from the Tanker War in the 1980s, when Iran blocked Iraqi oil exports and placed mines on tankers shipping Iraqi oil. Back then, the United States, together with other countries, responded by escorting tankers to restore oil flow.

However, the current Black Sea plans would first and foremost require demining parts of the waters to ensure safe passage, as concerns mount over mines breaking loose from their moorings or debris from sunken warships and vessels drifting toward the Turkish Straits or the Danube River.

Moreover, it would also require an agreement with Turkey, which guards the entrance to the Black Sea, to relax the Montreux Convention and allow ships to sail through the Turkish Straits and defend shipping in the area.

Just like the debate over the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone raised concerns about escalation and operational feasibility, this would constitute high risks of being dragged involuntarily into the war.

All of that makes a swift Western decision to unblock the Black Sea unlikely.


UKRAINE LATEST

  • Ukraine looms large in Davos. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed for more weapons and “maximum” further sanctions against Russia, as he declared that tens of thousands of lives would have been saved had the international community acted faster. Ukraine’s foreign minister said his country “badly” needed multiple launch rocket systems to match Russian firepower. NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Western countries should not trade security for economic profit, pointing to the risks of leaving close economic ties with Russia and China unchecked.
  • More voices join call for EU grants instead of loans for Ukraine. Experts are calling on the EU to give Ukraine short-term budgetary aid in the form of grants instead of loans, citing concern over the impact of massive debt on the country’s economy.
  • Is ‘peace’ a dirty word? Several EU leaders have voiced ideas for a ceasefire and peace agreement in Ukraine, but Kyiv dismissed them out of hand, comparing them to the attempts to appease Hitler in 1938. Peace is, of course, the greatest value. But obviously, there are different views on what price and in what circumstances peace in Ukraine could be achieved.
  • Virtual tours of Kyiv show devastation. Kyiv’s city administration has set up virtual tours of the war zone, allowing users to move between war-torn streets and shelled buildings. Nine locations in different districts of Kyiv are available to view.
  • Ukraine war crimes ‘another Nuremberg moment’, US says. Prosecutors will be ready with indictments in hand to hold Russians accountable for war crimes in Ukraine, US ambassador for global criminal justice Beth Van Schaack told EURACTIV, adding that prosecuting Vladimir Putin personally would be possible, though difficult.

EU IN THE WORLD

EUCO PREVIEW | Hungary is digging in its heels, and the prospect of the sixth sanction package against Russia, including a ban on imports of Russian oil, being approved before the EU summit is decreasing and EURACTIV understands we’re in for the long-haul.

EU ambassadors are set to meet later on Sunday to thrash out a potential eleventh-hour agreement before the summit, but according to most EU diplomats there is little hope for any tangible outcomes.

European Council President Charles Michel’s invitation letter has not clearly stated whether a sanction debate is on the table (strategic ambiguity after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s letter to him earlier this week?).

Michel, however, has invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to remotely join the meeting of EU leaders in Brussels next week. Considering how it went down last time, Hungary’s Prime Minister might be in for a rough ride.

At the special summit, EU leaders will discuss how best to organize the “support for Ukraine’s reconstruction, as a major global effort will be required to rebuild the country,” Michel said.

They are expected to sign off on plans which will make it easier to confiscate frozen assets linked to serious illegal activities and suspected criminals, including those evading EU sanctions against Russia. We have some numbers here.

GREECE-TURKEY SPAT | Athens was surprised this week by the European Commission’s lukewarm initial reaction to the statement of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who said that for him, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis “no longer exists”.

ENLARGEMENT LATEST

CANDIDATE STATUS | With the EU summit in June likely to become the pinnacle of the enlargement debate, more optimistic watchers of the EU’s battered enlargement policy could say that some member states hit the verbal brake in order not to create unrealistic expectations. But instead, it’s pure self-preservation.

For Georgia, gaining EU candidate status would be a crucial and existential political message that today the door is open for the country and that there is light at the end of the tunnel, Tbilisi’s Ambassador to the EU, Vakhtang Makharoblishvili, told EURACTIV.

EURASIA DIGEST

MEDIATION EFFORTS | It’s difficult to overlook how the EU has emerged as a major player in Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations. The last two meetings between the two countries’ leaders have taken place in Brussels, in a rather short time span, brokered by European Council President Charles Michel.

Unlike times before, there seems to be some progress as Armenia and Azerbaijan almost simultaneously announced the composition of their respective border commissions,  tasked with delineating and demarcating their mutual border.

Both sides plan to meet again in July or August, Michel said.

WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING 


ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS…

  • Special EU summit on Ukraine, defence, energy, and food security
    | Mo-Tue, 30-31May 2022 | Brussels, Belgium
  • Spain marks 40 years in NATO with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg attending
    | Monday, 30 May 2022 | Madrid, Spain
  • Chief prosecutors of Ukraine and ICC at Eurojust 
    | Tuesday, 31 May 2022 | The Hague, Netherlands
  • Referendum on overturning opt-out from EU defence policy
    | Wednesday, 1 June 2022 | Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Foreign Affairs Council (Trade) on WTO reform and EU-US trade relations
    | Friday, 3 June 2022 | Luxembourg
  • GLOBSEC Forum
    | Thu-Sat, 2-4 June 2022 | Bratislava, Slovakia
  • Sweden hosts the BALTOPS 22 NATO exercises
    | Sat-Fri, 4-17 June 2022 | Stockholm, Sweden
  • Referendum to modify the constitution
    | Sunday, 5 June 2022 | Nursultan, Kazakstan

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PAST EDITIONS

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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