“We have shown the world that Ukraine continues to guarantee global food security”, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently asserted while talking about the new maritime humanitarian corridor by which Ukraine’s been reinvigorating its grain exports from its Black Sea ports. Such exports had of course been interrupted by the end of the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI), which had until last July ensured the safe maritime export of Ukrainian grain against the backdrop of the war. Since then, Ukraine created the new corridor stretching out across Ukrainian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Turkish waters and, in mid-September, it resumed its globally vital grain exports by means of the Resilient Africa cargo vessel. From then on, and unto the present day, the corridor has been used by some 200 merchant ships to dock in Ukraine and successfully transport more than 7 million tons of grain and other goods to distant shores.
Even though Ukraine’s ports are still being targeted by frequent aerial bombings, the Russian fleet has been kept at bay from the new corridor – and, indeed, from Ukrainian waters – by Ukraine’s military successes in the Black Sea and in occupied Crimea. Ukraine spent the last months using commando raids and drone and missile attacks to ravage Russian military vessels and Russia’s logistical, infrastructural and anti-aerial capabilities in Crimea. Kyiv thus managed to change the balance of power in the region and to compel Moscow to disperse most of the fleet to safer shores in the eastern Black Sea – hence liberating Ukrainian waters from Russia’s naval blockade. All this, on par with the creation of the new humanitarian corridor, is yet another expression of the valor and resilience which have from early on in the war made Ukraine a strong inspiration and an example to follow.
The new corridor’s strategic importance cannot be underestimated. As stated by Kyiv, the key precondition for revitalizing Ukraine’s economy and for sustaining its agricultural sector is the ability of exporting through its deep-water Black Sea ports. Additionally, the corridor is indispensable for supplying markets with Ukrainian grain, so as to ensure food security for Africa, the Middle East and other regions in the Global South, after Russia put an end to the BSGI.
The BSGI, which had been created by the UN, Ukraine, Türkiye and Russia some months after the invasion of Ukraine, enabled the resumption of Ukrainian maritime grain exports, which were then obstructed by Russia’s naval blockade. While in operation, from August 2022 to July 2023, the BSGI enabled the flow of nearly 33 million tons of Ukrainian agricultural goods to the markets, thus increasing the global availability of food, stabilizing food prices and mitigating global food insecurity – which was then exacerbated by the global impacts of the aggression on Ukraine. Some 57 percent of total exports and 65 percent of wheat exports were shipped to developing countries, while the BSGI also enabled the supply of some of the planet’s most vulnerable populations with hundreds of thousands of tons of Ukrainian wheat by the World Food Program and the Grain from Ukraine humanitarian initiative. The BSGI was terminated when Russia left on July 17, on the allegation that Russian agricultural exports were being targeted by restrictions at such levels as finance, insurance and logistics – even though there were never any sanctions on such exports, and also despite the fact that Russia’s grain exports achieved very high volumes during the length of the BSGI.
Ukraine is now determined to continue the BSGI’s humanitarianly indispensable work, by using the new corridor to “restore vital food supply routes to the regions that need them the most”, as said by Kyiv.
Nevertheless, merchant ships crossing the corridor are still faced with military threats, like sea mines or potential bombardments. There is thus an agreement for providing merchant ships with war risk insurance, while the corridor itself bypasses international waters, progressing along the Ukrainian coast and then through the waters of NATO states Romania, Bulgaria and Türkiye. The corridor is also protected by onshore defense systems and Kyiv has warned it will retaliate heavily in case Russia attacks the corridor – such a warning being of course substantiated by the destruction Ukraine has already inflicted on Russian capabilities in Crimea and the Black Sea.
However, and even though the Russian fleet mostly retreated to the eastern Black Sea, the fact is Russia still enjoys air superiority in the region, which it’s been making use of – from the end of the BSGI onward – to insistently bomb Ukrainian Black Sea and Danube ports with missiles and drones. So, and from July 17 onward, Russia hit at least 167 infrastructures, 122 vehicles and 7 civilian ships and it destroyed some 300 thousand metric tons of Ukrainian grain – with the inflicted damages curtailing Ukraine’s grain export potential in nothing less than 40 percent.
Such a war of attrition on Ukraine’s export capabilities is a particularly ugly means of hurting Ukraine’s economy. And, it’s also a way of creating hunger in the world, since, as was stated by European Council President Charles Michel, by attacking Ukrainian ports, the Kremlin is depriving vulnerable populations of the food they desperately need.
Still, it seems clear that Russia won’t give up threatening Ukrainian exports. Even while it also knows that it must carefully study its options in the Black Sea, since this is now, and increasingly so, a game played by two players, with a Ukraine who answers back.
And, a Ukraine who has allies – who are dedicated to providing Ukraine with all the assistance it needs to protect its air space and its territorial waters, as well as to expand its campaign in the Black Sea and in Crimea. Ukraine is standing up to an imperial aggression which is ruthless in methods and unshakable in persistence, and in a sense it’s doing so on behalf of the security of all of Europe and of the West. It needs all the assistance it can get. Above all, it seems essential to provide Kyiv with the abilities it needs to achieve air superiority over its own territory. As pointed out by Zelensky, 2024 must become the year Ukraine throws Russia out of its skies. The steady progress of the F16 program, along with uninterrupted deliveries of anti-aerial capabilities and long-range missiles, seem to be key here. However, Ukraine also needs maritime demining capabilities. And, it’s important that there should be a firm continuity to the ongoing assistance for the reconstruction of destroyed port infrastructures.
Nonetheless, security of trade in the Black Sea could also be ensured by reinvigorating the BSGI. The UN and Türkiye have thus been working to bring Russia back to the initiative. However, Russia’s been inflexible in negotiations, signaling it would only return in case the West acquiesced to sanctions removal. Yet, Russia fully knows that the West would never accept such a scenario, excepting in the presence of very strong reasons for doing so. It therefore remains to be seen whether Moscow will try to create such a context in the world stage.
But Russia’s inflexibility has also been expressed in the way it’s been ignoring calls for the resumption of the BSGI, by actors such as India, South Africa and the Gulf Cooperation Council, and also by several of the African leaders who were at the latest Russia-Africa summit – which of course includes the Chairperson of the African Union himself, who talked about how access to Ukrainian grain would save African lives.
Very well then, this author would argue that it’s precisely to African and other states in the Global South that Ukraine could turn to for support for the Black Sea humanitarian corridor. Ukraine could try to establish a cooperation with a number of states from those regions of the globe, under the notion of jointly ensuring the steady flow of grain to markets on behalf of global food security. Such a cooperation could consist of a partnership, or it could come about by means of the creation of a new mechanism for joint work under the auspices of the UN. The states who joined could assist Ukraine with the security monitoring of merchant ships and Ukrainian ports, and they could also participate in the institutional condemnation of any aggressions on the same ships and ports. The mere presence of such states in the corridor would tend to be more protective than any military system could. After all, Russia now depends on the Global South, since it’s in those regions of the globe that it finds most of its remaining interlocutors. It would be essentially imponderable for Russia – from either a diplomatic or a public relations standpoint – to attack a humanitarian corridor several African, Asian and Latin-American states would be engaged in. Ukraine spent the last months developing relations with Africa and the Arab world, India and Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, Brazil and the Caribbean. Why not resort to such contacts to bring the Global South into the humanitarian corridor?