Russia has ended the grain corridor deal, which allowed Ukraine to export agricultural products through the Black Sea. China was the largest recipient of those products, receiving almost one-quarter of them. A significant percentage went through United Nations food programs to Africa, making them a key weapon in the fight against hunger. Being a purveyor of cruelty and misery, Russia doesn’t care.
What Russia doesn’t realize is that the grain corridor deal didn’t just protect shipping to and from Ukraine, but Russian shipping as well. Barring a last-minute reversal, the Black Sea is now the newest battleground in this godforsaken war.
Having seen Russia blink time and time again, there is still a very real chance, perhaps 50-50, that the grain deal will be reinstated. Much depends on Turkey and whether its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, decides to play hardball. Turkey’s navy could very well protect Black Sea shipping. Russia’s navy wouldn’t stand a chance in a faceoff. And that’s just in a one-on-one fight. Any attack on Turkish ships would trigger NATO’s Article 5, bringing the entirety of the alliance into the fight.
Yet that is the danger which might push NATO’s top countries, including the United States, to dissuade Erdogan from taking any steps to actively protect those shipping lanes. Odds are good that Vladimir Putin would back down, but President Joe Biden has been adamant about avoiding anything that might spark a wider conflagration. I doubt there’s any appetite in the capitals of any of NATO’s largest powers to risk direct confrontation over grain that’s mostly headed to China and Africa. While Europe also gets a significant amount of Ukrainian grain, those goods are shipped via rail and remain unaffected by Russia’s actions.
Yesterday, Russia announced, “In connection with the termination of the Black Sea Initiative and the curtailment of the maritime humanitarian corridor, from 00.00 Moscow time on July 20, 2023, all ships en route to Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea waters will be considered as potential carriers of military cargo. The flag countries of such vessels will be considered involved in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of the Kyiv regime.”
Ukraine has now echoed that very same threat: “The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine warns that from 00:00 on July 21, 2023, all vessels heading in the waters of the Black Sea in the direction of seaports of the Russian Federation and Ukrainian seaports located on the territory of Ukraine temporarily occupied by Russia, may be considered by Ukraine as carrying military goods with all the associated risks.”
This is not an idle threat.
In the early days of the war, rumors abounded of an imminent Russian amphibious assault on the major port city of Odesa. You might remember I remained skeptical through all the hysteria, noting that Russia simply didn’t have the juice to mount that incredibly difficult undertaking against a city of 1 million. But Ukraine took the threat seriously from the start, and among its earliest asks were anti-ship missiles to fend off any such assault from the sea.
The allies responded by sending Harpoon anti-ship missiles, arriving in late May 2022. Normally air- or ship-fired, they were adapted to launch from ground-based launchers. Meanwhile, Ukraine was working on its own Neptune anti-ship missile. It was two of those that sank the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, the Moskva. However, they were in short supply at the time. Ukraine has had over a year to build up its stocks of them.
The Neptune has a range of 200 kilometers. The Harpoon has a range of 125 kilometers if sea- (or ground) launched, but 220 kilometers from the air. Given how many NATO-standard missiles have been modified to launch from Mig-29s this past year, we could probably safely assume the Harpoon has similarly been adapted to Ukraine’s air force.
This is what 200 kilometers from Russia’s main naval base in Sevastopol looks like:
Meanwhile, another anti-ship missile appears headed to Ukraine, as Poland is negotiating handing over its supply of JSM anti-ship missiles. This is a mobile ground-launched system, with a range of over 200 kilometers. While it doesn’t have the range to hit Sevastopol, it’ll be able to target any Russian ships within 200 kilometers of the Ukrainian coast. There is a very real probability that Russia will be unable to operate any surface vessels on the western side of Crimea.
Leave it to Putin to ignore the consequences during his petulant tantrum, but shipping to Crimea is now in danger. And while any Ukrainian aircraft flying within range will be subject to Russian air defenses, the range is far enough that they can fly low over the water to avoid radar, pop up when in range, launch, and dive back down before air defenses have time to react. There is significant NATO drone and manned air surveillance over the Black Sea, giving Ukraine a wealth of intelligence and targeting information.
Maybe that’s what will need to happen before Putin reconsiders his refusal to renew the agreement.
Ukraine is already able to strike the Crimean bridge from afar, and its forces are creeping deeper into the land bridge connecting the Russian mainland to the Crimean peninsula. By blowing the Kakhovka dam, Russia cut off Crimea’s water supply. By blocking shipping to Crimea, Ukraine will be better able to lay siege to Crimea, restricting Russia’s ability to supply its forces and civilian squatters occupying that piece of occupied territory.
On a related note, lots of people are asking why NATO doesn’t protect Ukrainian grain shipments. Aside from the risk of escalating the conflict—and I doubt few would want a wider war over grain shipments to China and Africa—the fact is NATO could not deploy any warships to the Black Sea. Per Ukraine’s request, Turkey closed off the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits per the Montreux Convention. That means that warships may not pass unless they are returning to their home ports.
Activating the convention means that Russia can’t reinforce its Black Sea fleet with additional warships based elsewhere, but it also means that NATO can’t send ships into the Black Sea to protect commercial shipping.
We have our first video of American-supplied cluster munitions reportedly in action:
For all the talk of using cluster munitions to break through Russian lines, this is actually their best-use case: against infantry (and thin-skinned vehicles) out in the open. Too bad Ukraine didn’t have them earlier; it would’ve been great to use them against the Wagner human-wave attacks around Bakhmut and elsewhere, saving the traditional artillery rounds for targeting hardened defensive positions. But oh well.
Mark Sumner geolocated that video:
These Russians had just left their lines, into the gray zone, before being pulverized.
This is the same front line outside Donetsk City, around 100%-destroyed Marinka, that Russia has tried to break this entire war. Apparently, they’re now trying the Wagner approach of sending out waves of unprotected infantry against hardened Ukrainian positions. Cluster munitions will make short work of them, and might actually convince Russia to give up on those tactics. It sucks for the poor mobilized being sent out to die, but for the sake of Ukraine, let’s hope they don’t change those tactics. It’s easier to kill Russians outside of trenches than in them.
To be clear, I’d rather those Russians all surrender or abandon their posts, because I’m tired of seeing people die. But so far, for whatever reasons, most Russian soldiers continue to fight.
The approach toward Robotyne has been incredibly costly for Ukraine, but they continue to inch forward. And that’s the story along most of the active front line: Russia continues to put up fierce resistance in front of their prepared defenses. As noted before, it makes for slow Ukrainian advances, but also has proven far more costly to Russia than if they sat in their trenches. Just look at Marinka and Russia’s failed efforts to break Ukrainian defenses around Donetsk city. Hardened defenses work really well.