On July 30, 2023, the Israeli ship Ams1 became the first commercial ship to break the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports in a month. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain producers, but its crops cannot reach a hungry world.
The Israeli boat entered the Danube River Delta and headed to the Ukrainian port of Izmail. It received American aerial support from a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and a reconnaissance drone, Forte RQ-4.
Why is this important?
On February 20, 2014, Russia invaded Crimea, a Ukrainian territory, and has occupied it ever since. On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in a full-scale war, rekindling East-West tensions. The unilateral attack on Ukraine’s Kyiv capital was unexpected. Ukraine, known as the “breadbasket of Europe,” is one of the world’s biggest exporters of agricultural goods like grain, oilseed, and fertilizer. As a result of the invasion, Ukrainian grain exports were severely restricted due to Russian attacks on storage facilities, ports, and ships. The concomitant shortage resulted in rising grain prices worldwide, and developing countries felt the adverse effects acutely.
In July 2022, the UN and Turkey, which shares a border on the Black Sea with Russia and Ukraine, brokered an agreement between its neighbors known as the Black Sea Grain Initiative. In the deal, Russia agreed to permit the passage of Ukrainian ships through the Black Sea from three designated ports under the condition that departing vessels would be inspected for weapons and would travel on a specified route. Also, as part of the agreement, the UN required Ukraine to provide a significant amount of its newly released grain to lower-income countries. Finally, Russia benefited from the deal with an assurance that the UN would help it increase its Russian agricultural exports. The agreement’s effects were immediate, the blockade was lifted, and food prices worldwide dropped by 20%.
Until recently, the shipping route was operating as stipulated by the agreement. However, when the contract expired on July 17, 2023, Russia refused to renew the initiative and reinstated the blockade in full force. Russia threatened to consider any ship sailing to or from Ukraine as a ship bearing arms and liable to justified military attack.
Russia’s justification for discontinuing the initiative was based on the claim that the UN failed to assist Russia in increasing its grain and fertilizer exports, as per the agreement. Since 2022, the EU and other countries have implemented sanctions on Russia to weaken its economy. One of the most pressing sanctions is barring many Russian banks from SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications), a quick and easy banking transaction system upon which much of the global economy is based. Without SWIFT, many Russian banks are forced to process their transactions using older and slower methods, giving them a disadvantage on the economic world stage and partially debilitating the Russian economy. Russia is particularly upset that their agricultural bank, Rosselkhozbank, is not on this system, hindering their agricultural exports. While the UN has refused to put Rosselkhozbank on the SWIFT system, it has suggested that Russia form a subsidiary bank that can be on SWIFT. Russia refused, stating it would not re-enter the grain deal unless its conditions were met.
The Impact on Food Security
As a result of the most recent blockade, Ukraine found other ways to export its goods. Alternative routes include shipping through the Adriatic and Baltic Seas. Still, because these routes require road or river transport, they are slower and more expensive. Supplies have been dramatically reduced, and grain prices significantly increased.
This renewed blockade is harming the global economy. Since it began, many countries, especially the United States and Europe, have seen spikes in wheat prices, with a 1.6% rise internationally in July alone. The countries hit hardest by the Russian blockade are African countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Sudan, all in great need of grain and fertilizer due to many years of drought and famine. Without Ukrainian exports, the countries’ peoples are at risk of starvation. Before the blockade, Ukraine supplied the World Food Program (WFP), which provides many lower-income countries with food, 80% of its grain. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, called Russian actions an “act of cruelty.”
Since the end of the deal, Russia bombed grain storehouses in Odesa and Reni and destroyed many tons of grain. These bombings are another attack on Ukraine’s ability to export grain and hence on grain prices and supplies globally. These bombings also suggest that Russia is not only preventing Ukrainian grain export but destroying it at its source as well; diminishing availability of Ukrainian grain for the world, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, will be dramatically felt.
Since the deal has expired, many African leaders have vocalized their concerns. Moussa Faki Mahamat, the African Union Commission Chair, remarked, “The grain deal must be extended for the benefit of all the peoples of the world, Africans in particular.” In addition, on July 27-28, 2023, at the second Russia-Africa Summit, only 17 heads of state were present. In contrast, the previous summit saw nearly triple that number attend. The refusal of so many heads of state to come to attend the Russian conference reflects the frustration of Africa with Russia. As grain prices rise and supply depletes, the African nations suffering from food shortages will become more vulnerable.
Here lies the importance of the Israeli Ams1 ship sailing up the Danube with American air support. In defiance of the Russian blockade, Israel’s Ams1 led the way for other ships sailing to the same place with the same intent: to bring Ukrainian grain to Africa. Egypt, for example, has been the primary beneficiary of Ams1 grain shipments.
The lesson goes well beyond the immediate and the locale. Western determination can and must ensure safe maritime travel and trade, especially regarding the basic human need for food security.