The Battle for the Black Sea
Throughout the year, Turkey has been collecting compliments and bonuses from the international community for its role in the so-called “grain deal”, which allowed Ukraine to move its grain out of its own ports, which had been criminally blockaded by the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Known for its difficult relations with Western democracies and NATO partners, Ankara has become a major geopolitical player – a saviour hero capable of reaching highly complex agreements in critical situations. Moreover, the flow of Ukrainian grain has stimulated the development of the Turkish economy, creating its own niches, for example in the segment of transport, storage and processing of Ukrainian grain.
On 17 July, Russia announced its unilateral withdrawal from the grain deal, threatening “risks” to parties who tried to continue the initiative without Russia’s participation. At the same time, Moscow began a massive targeted bombardment of Ukraine’s port infrastructure. On 23 August alone, a Russian drone strike destroyed 13 tonnes of grain.
Turkey is now trying to maintain its image as an effective “negotiator with a terrorist” and is making efforts to bring Russia back into the grain deal, seeking a delicate balance between the demands of the terrorist country, its own business interests and the norms of international law and decency.
After dozens of announcements that never materialised, a meeting between Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin is scheduled for 4 September in Russia. Obviously, the Turkish leader is not ready to leave Russia without concrete results.
At the same time, any agreements between Ankara and Moscow will not make sense without taking into account the position of Ukraine, which, despite the war, remains one of the world's leading producers and exporters of agricultural products and has its own vision of the situation in the Black Sea.
Russia seeks to look strong
Recently, armed Russian marines decided to conduct a search of the relatively small Turkey-based civilian cargo ship Sukru Okan, approaching in a Ka-29 helicopter despite strong winds. The ship had left the port of Odesa as part of a “grain deal”.
The incident with the “attack” in international waters near Istanbul was seen by Western experts as an attempt to frighten Ukraine's partners who plan to continue trade with Kyiv. However, this attempt was hardly convincing.
In an interview with the German newspaper Bild, Turkish shipping expert Yoruk Isik stressed that Russia deliberately chose a civilian ship flying the flag of the Pacific island state of Palau because it is “small and not very important”.
“This action was pure theatre. They cannot enforce the blockade, so they are trying to chase the ships. But they can't do that either, so they are committing a simple act of piracy in the international waters of the Black Sea,” Isik said in an interview with a German newspaper.
Analysts at the Istanbul-based Bosphorus Observer argue that Russia has no control over the trade routes to Ukraine, and the incident with the Turkish ship is further proof of this. The attack by armed marines on a Ka-29 helicopter in stormy conditions was dangerous for the Russians themselves and made no military sense: “...the pilots could have been killed. Besides, it looked ridiculous and theatrical,” explain Turkish experts.
Still, Ankara’s muted reaction seemed “strange”. On the other hand, it could have been dictated by Turkish leader Erdogan’s hopes of persuading Russia's Putin to renew the grain deal.
Russia restricts Bulgarian shipping
In July, even before the official withdrawal from the grain deal, Moscow announced naval exercises off the coast of Bulgaria. Initially, the Bulgarian government said that foreign warships had a legal right to pass through the country's exclusive economic zone. As the process dragged on, however, Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov recognised the problem as Russia’s militarisation of the Black Sea.
“Russian ships have been in the waters of our exclusive economic zone for about 20 days... Bulgaria should integrate more closely with NATO. It is like a bomb shelter for us today,” Denkov said.
Russia's actions in Bulgarian and international waters were clearly aimed at disrupting maritime trade with Ukraine.
According to experts, Moscow may allow small traders to operate in Ukraine's Danube ports “with certain restrictions”, but it is trying to gradually restrict Ukrainian exports while avoiding direct confrontation with the West.
Step by step, Russia is trying to monopolise the Black Sea by force.
Turkey seeks to maintain influence
This weekend, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan arrived in Kyiv. Together with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, they discussed the resumption of the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
“We have a common approach here: we are working, we are making every effort to restore the functioning of this initiative,” the Ukrainian Foreign Minister stressed.
For his part, the Turkish Foreign Minister said: “We continue our efforts to resume the Black Sea Grain Initiative and not to lose the achievements of the past months. We will continue the dialogue on this issue.”
The talks take place against the backdrop of news of the passage of a ship that has been blocked in Odesa since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion.
Last week Kyiv offered merchant ships to sail along the coasts of Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria, while warning that “there is a military and mine threat from Russia on all routes”.
The container ship Joseph Schulte, owned by the German shipping company Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement and a Chinese bank, has left the port of Odesa. And according to all major international agencies, it has successfully reached its destination in Istanbul.
The event was described as a “breakthrough” in the naval blockade imposed by Russia on the Black Sea and Azov ports.
The Hong Kong-flagged German-Chinese civilian cargo ship Joseph Schulte, which has been blocked in the port of Odesa since February 2022, has taken advantage of the “humanitarian corridor” offered by Ukraine to allow it to enter its ports. As Ukraine hopes, it will be used first by the handful of ships that have been stuck in Ukrainian ports since the beginning of Russian aggression, and then by those who dare to ignore Russian threats and resume Black Sea trade with Ukraine, which accounted for 2/3 of Ukraine’s pre-war exports.
Some experts believe that the successful passage of the ship is an example of how grain can be exported without Russia. And once the ships blocked in Ukrainian ports since Russia’s aggression began are released, the rest who want to resume Black Sea trade with Ukraine will try their luck.
25 August James O’Brien, head of the US State Department’s Sanctions Coordination Office, says he sees “viable” routes for transporting grain from Ukraine despite Russia's threats and without taking into account its position.
“I think we can see that there are viable routes through Ukraine’s territorial waters and land routes. And we aim to return to the pre-war average level of exports from Ukraine within the next few months,” he said.
Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu said he hoped that 60% of Ukraine's grain exports would pass through Romania, suggesting that Ukrainian grain could pass through Romania's Black Sea port of Constanta.
Washington’s statement, and its support from its partners, clearly showed that a plan to transport grain without Russia and with a minimal role for Turkey was possible. And Ankara has stepped up negotiations to return to the “classic grain deal”.
But Ukraine is becoming less and less interested.
Resume trading, not just the deal
Two thirds of Ukraine’s exports went via the Black Sea, despite the diversification of supply routes. Black Sea remains key to Ukraine's international trade.
Amidst the loud statements about the critical importance of the grain corridor for the whole planet, a key point seems to have been lost. The Black Sea grain agreement actually legitimised the trade embargo imposed by Russia on Ukrainian maritime trade. What is more, these illegal restrictions were imposed under the auspices of the UN, which brokered the grain deal with Turkey.
The international community is now actively working to persuade Putin to return to the grain deal, but shouldn’t we have been discussing the resumption of free navigation in the Black Sea?
Increasing protection for Ukrainian ports and raising the risks for Russian ports would bring parity closer. Further progress could be made by helping Ukrainian grain traders cover losses from future strikes and by softening the stance of some EU member states on bans on Ukrainian grain.
It was clear beforehand that Russia would block Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea, but the United States and the European Union did not develop a strategy to counter this. So perhaps this time we can avoid Russia's monopolisation of the Black Sea.
“The sea must be safe for all. This is fundamental for Ukraine and our partners. Freedom and safety of navigation are basic principles of international relations,” tweets President Zelenskyy.
According to Melinda Haring, an analyst at the Atlantic Council, Moscow must be prevented from “turning the Black Sea, which is shared by seven countries, into a Russian lake”. Haring quotes former US Army Europe commander Ben Hodges as saying that “the future of the West may be decided in the Black Sea”.
According to the researcher, even if Washington is not ready to agree to NATO ships escorting or protecting civilian merchant ships, it can do a lot to make the Ukrainian “humanitarian corridor” work reliably.