Russia warns of Black Sea closure as grain deal end stokes attack fears

19 Jul 2023 | Tim Worledge

Russia’s defense ministry has issued a statement declaring that, effective midnight Moscow time on the morning of July 20, any shipping identified as heading towards a Ukrainian port would be regarded as “potential carriers of military cargo.”

The statement, released on the ministry’s website, follows Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea grain corridor initiative and comes after two days of missile and drone strikes carried out against ports in the Odesa region.

Following Russia’s suspension of its participation, the ministry declared “areas in the north-western and south-eastern parts of the international waters of the Black Sea” to be “temporarily dangerous for navigation.”

The move is the latest in a rapidly escalating stand-off between Ukraine and Russia and ramps up uncertainty in the Black Sea region after a year in which a four-way agreement has brought stability and facilitated exports of corn, wheat and other oilseeds to world markets.

The corridor deal, signed between Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Nations, has become increasingly less effective as Russian authorities were accused of deliberately slowing the rate of inspections of in- and outbound vessels.

The inspections were a key part of the deal and overcame Russian concerns that ships approaching Ukrainian ports could be used to smuggle weapons into the country – but also introduced a vulnerability where Russian authorities could control access to Ukraine’s deep water ports.

Ultimately, as Russia was accused of increasingly exploiting that control and effectively starving vessels into the Black Sea, the deal had proved less and less effective – but an attack on a key bridge linking the Russian mainland with the disputed Crimea region has seen events rapidly escalating.

In declaring all shipping heading towards the Ukrainian ports as potential carriers of military cargo, the statement warned that “such vessels will be considered involved in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of the Kyiv regime.”

The implicit threat is likely to alarm ship owners and insurers and could also affect shipping using the Danube ports in the extreme south of Ukraine – an alternative export route that has been shouldering increasing responsibility for maintaining Ukraine’s export flows.