The greatest obstacle to Ukrainian victory might be not Russia’s ground forces but its navy. Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports is putting enormous economic pressure on Ukraine—a major supplier of global agricultural products such as wheat, sunflower oil, and barley seeds—and the defenders don’t have a navy to break it. But for Vladimir Putin, the blockade’s effect on the Ukrainian economy is likely a secondary consideration. His primary objective is instead to inflict pain on the rest of the world and extract concessions from Western Europe. The strategy appears to be working.
Germany and France have entered into talks with Russia to break the blockade, and condemnation of those talks from Baltic leaders suggest the start of a diplomatic fracturing of NATO. The decision of the French and German governments to engage in talks is understandable: The blockade is causing shortages that are driving up food prices. And while Eastern Europeans need to treat Russia as an immediate threat because of its proximity, Western Europeans enjoy the buffer Eastern Europe provides between Russia and themselves. This creates space for them to engage with Putin in a different way—by calling him up like they’re middle school besties, for example.
But food prices have now risen enough to become a major political problem for the already unpopular French and German governments. Consider the scale of global trade being held up: The blockade preventing naval export is obstructing Ukraine’s contribution of 7 percent of the world’s supply of grain products. The country is sitting on 22 million tons it cannot currently move, although Russia is stealing and trying to sell some of that stock. (So far the Russians have been successful in finding customers only in Syria.) Before the war, Russia and Ukraine together accounted for 55 percent of the world’s sunflower oil supply. Russia and Belarus exported almost 40 percent of the world’s supply of potash, an important ingredient in fertilizers, but those exports have been halted under sanctions. With the cessation of so much trade driving up staple food prices by up to 30 percent, the United Nations is making dire predictions about the near future, especially for many of the world’s poorest. All told, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused a greater disruption in global food markets than did the COVID-19 pandemic.
And things could still become much worse, as the food crisis exacerbates security concerns. Poor governance and corruption have long contributed to poverty and food shortages in the Greater Middle East and Africa, and the war in Ukraine (along with a historic drought) have only made things worse. Famine is now almost inevitable in Somalia. Lebanon has been beset with food shortages since the Ukraine war began. Humanitarian issues precede civil war and refugee crises, but European nations—feverish with populism and still recovering politically from the last influx of refugees seven years ago—have neither the will nor the infrastructure to take in refugees from Muslim-majority countries. Putin has long exploited this weakness by, for instance, intentionally attacking and displacing civilian populations in Syria and adding to the chaos in Libya in the hope that refugees would overwhelm the social structures of European countries receiving them; Belarus has recently tried (and failed) to emulate this strategy by using false promises of ease and safety to encourage refugees to attempt to enter Poland.
For all these reasons, Western Europe wants to bring Ukrainian—and possibly even Russian and Belarusian—products back into the global supply chain. There are three main options for achieving this goal:
(1) Western nations can pursue an alternative shipping method for Ukrainian goods. Naval shipping remains the dominant method for international commerce; four-fifths of the world’s trade volume passes over seas and oceans. Efforts to restart Ukrainian grain exports over land are proceeding abysmally. Aside from natural challenges to moving such large volumes over land, there is also the added problem of the incompatibility of Ukraine’s railroad system with the E.U.’s. Bottom line: These alternatives seem unworkable. If Ukraine is going to export its 22-million-ton stockpile of grain products, the only feasible way to do so is through the ports—which are not only blockaded, but excessively mined.
(2) Western nations can give Russia the concessions it desires. The French and German governments have reportedly been pressuring Volodymyr Zelensky to make concessions to Putin—pressure that Zelensky has so far been admirably resisting. Concessions could involve a ceasefire or agreements to surrender territory or sovereignty. Putin may also extract concessions from Ukraine’s allies—such as the lifting of sanctions. Whatever concessions are made, you’d better believe that other imperialist totalitarians—specifically, China and Iran—will be watching closely, learning that they, too, can receive political concessions from democracies by simply turning up the level of commercial pain they impose on the world. It is worth remembering that a Chinese blockade of Taiwan could starve the world of semiconductors, and that Iranians could blockade the narrow Strait of Hormuz to strangle the world’s supply of petroleum products. These are goods in which liberal democracies have much more immediate interests than grain and fertilizers, and they are also more vulnerable economic targets because of their geographic concentration in Taiwan and the Persian Gulf.
(3) Western nations can intervene to disrupt the blockade. To preempt these bleak eventualities, the Biden administration must accept some risk—an essential characteristic of the hegemon when it comes to maintaining order—and break the Russian blockade. By doing so, the administration will not only mitigate the global food crisis Russia is cynically prolonging, but it will also demonstrate its military resolve and its willingness to call the bluff of bad state actors. Moreover, it will give Russia good reasons to reconsider before escalating the current war.
There are several ways that Russia’s naval blockade can be broken—but they all involve an active role for the U.S. Navy, which would escort Ukrainian merchant ships reflagged to sail under American colors. NATO and American naval forces would also need to agree on a plan to work together to clear Ukrainian ports of mines.
Breaking the blockade could lead to further Russian escalation, so the Biden administration would need to accept risks to pursue this course. These risks are somewhat mitigated by the United States’s effectiveness in surveilling Russian leaders and by Putin’s cautious approach to prosecuting the war following his chastening by failure in its early days. The Russian president does not have a navy capable of winning a fight against the U.S. Navy and NATO’s forces; nor does he stand to gain anything from the use of his nuclear arsenal in response to a more robust American intervention.
But while the risks that would attend a decision to break the Russian blockade are real, remember the reason for taking the risk: preventing a humanitarian disaster (that would likely also set off further geopolitical disasters) in which millions of people starve because Ukraine’s food exports sit in useless piles. It’s a risk worth taking to avert a catastrophe of that magnitude.