Opinion | Maritime coalition must break through Ukraine’s port blockade

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis recently launched a plan for a maritime “will coalition” to lift the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports. Since Russia’s murderous attack on Ukraine last February, they have not been able to import or export anything.

Ukraine is one of the world’s largest producers of cereals and oilseeds. Many poor countries (in North Africa and the Middle East) are heavily dependent on Ukraine’s exports. The blockade has pushed the price of grain massively up on the world market and can even lead to real food shortages. Russia’s invasion may become oneturning point‘is heading for a world hunger crisis, according to Ertharin Cousin, former director of the UN World Food Program. “The whole world community will be hard hit by this.”

Before the war, Ukraine exported 98 percent of its agricultural products through the Black Sea, 6 million tons a month. At present, no more than 1 to 1.5 million tons can leave the country by rail. According to the UN, there are currently 25 million tonnes of grain in stock. 35 percent of the total storage capacity will still be full by the 2021 harvest when the 2022 harvest comes in a few months.

Humanitarian mission

It is inconceivable and unacceptable that Russia is holding the world’s food supply hostage through a completely unprovoked war against a peaceful neighbor. It is therefore urgent that international efforts be made as soon as possible to ensure unhindered exports of agricultural products worldwide.

Landsbergis’ proposal is an effective instrument for this. He envisions a ‘non-military humanitarian mission’ of an international coalition of countries that will use naval vessels, accompanied by aircraft if necessary, to ensure that merchant ships can sail safely to and from Ukrainian ports.

It is not a problem from a technical and organizational point of view, and there are in itself more than enough countries to participate in such an operation.

There is nothing to argue against under international law. The right to free navigation is one of the oldest basic principles of international law: ships of a sovereign state must not be hindered by other states on the high seas. But we are dealing with Russia, a country that has disregarded international law for years and often behaves aggressively and unpredictably.

Seek UN support

Therefore, it is important to start gaining international public opinion right now, especially those in the countries that are heavily dependent on Ukrainian exports. Ideally, at least some of such countries would be part of the maritime coalition.

An essential part of the international action is the submission to the UN Security Council of a proposal that makes it clear that there is an urgent need for uninterrupted access to Ukrainian ports in order to secure the world’s food supply. Once the Security Council has formally reaffirmed that principle, Russia should be asked for concrete guarantees to make this possible immediately. To gain even more support, the UN General Assembly may also be asked to support humanitarian efforts. There seems to be a large majority practically secured.

If Russia refuses to provide the requested guarantees, the maritime coalition must set course for the Black Sea to accompany the merchant ships that are to load grain in Ukrainian ports.

Also read: The war in Ukraine is not the only cause of the insurmountable wheat

By this time, the international coalition must have already spoken with Turkey. That country plays a crucial role in the application of the Montreux Convention, which regulates access for ships to the Black Sea. There are some restrictions for warships from countries that are not on the Black Sea. For a mission like this, however, it is not necessary for the merchant ships to be accompanied by a large number of naval vessels. Five to six frigates and destroyers must comply.

Let Russia sail on?

Assume that all these obstacles have been successfully overcome, and an international maritime coalition is steaming up to Ukrainian ports, initially to the largest port, Odessa. It may be that Russia’s position on whether or not to allow free passage at that time is still not entirely clear. Then the international community faces a choice: will it give in to a possible threat from Russia, isolated in the international public opinion, to use force, or will it not be bluffed and move on? Under these circumstances, it seems highly unlikely that Russia will risk opening fire on an international coalition carrying out a global humanitarian mission.

However, we have not yet reached that point. A solution to the food crisis is more than urgent, and it is therefore no longer possible to delay taking concrete preparatory steps. The Netherlands is in a good position to actively contribute to this; and to participate in the mission with a warship in due course.

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