Wheat Crisis and Straits Policy

(To Philip Del Monte)

Russia's capture of the ports of Melitopol and Berdyansk early in the war virtually brought about the demise of the Ukrainian surface fleet. Yet, with clever use of the A2/AD strategy, Kyiv managed to prevent the Russians from exploiting their naval superiority in the Black Sea.

Moscow's exit from the "Black Sea Grain Initiative" and the announcement of its intention to take advantage of the "right of visit" for all neutral ships bound for or coming from Ukrainian ports, have reopened the delicate question of the political-military balance in the Black Sea.

In British intelligence reports we read that the Russian Black Sea Fleet, while keeping out of the range of Ukrainian anti-ship missiles, has assumed a suitable deployment to impose a naval blockade from the Crimea to the Dardanelles.

The high quantity of mines that Russia is placing along the merchant routes to and from Odessa serve to prohibit navigation to the Ukrainians and discourage the presence of neutral civilian shipping.

Naval blockade can effectively be accomplished in a limited area from Odessa to the mouth of the Danube and, according to Royal United Service Institute maritime warfare expert Sidharth Kaushal, offensive mining of that stretch of sea poses a danger that can potentially block any commercial traffic.

In 1877 the Ottoman Empire, engaged in war against Russia, enjoyed naval superiority in the Black Sea but did not exploit it, avoiding the implementation of the Odessa-Danube naval blockade. The mistake was paid dearly and was one of those that condemned Istanbul to defeat.

Today the Russians believe that the conventional naval superiority they enjoy can be well exploited only by putting Ukraine in political crisis, showing its inability to guarantee the security of the grain routes and inciting them against even a part of NATO, even iron allies of Kyiv like Poland. The purely military question - at a time when the counter-offensive by Ukrainian troops on land is accelerating, especially in the face of Bakhmut - is joined by the political one when we speak of the "Grain Deal".

The International Monetary Fund estimates that the global price of grain could increase by 10-15%, while the European Union is looking for a system to guarantee Ukrainian grain exports by land. There are countries such as Poland, Romania and, to a lesser extent, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia, which have suffered economic-productive damage due to the massive presence of Ukrainian wheat and cereals in their markets. To accept Brussels' wheat "land plan", these countries have asked for guarantees for their farmers. Zelensky protested, but this will lengthen the European reaction to Putin's naval blockade.

Ukrainian wheat is of high quality and cheap, but only if it is transported by sea or relatively short distances inland. Transporting it for great distances by land would become uneconomical and nobody wants to attempt the enterprise without compensation.

While on the one hand the Russian naval blockade responds to the Kremlin's political-military needs, on the other it will not be able to cause an escalation outside the Black Sea, thanks to the Turkish choice to "keep the point" on this.

As controller of the Dardanelles, Ankara plays a fundamental game for the political and military balance of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Erdogan's mediation attempts between Kyiv and Moscow and the signing of the wheat agreement in 2022 have strengthened the role of the Turks in the region.

Chicago wheat futures have risen 20% since Russia announced its withdrawal from the Grain Deal but have yet to hit the 2022 levels that prompted the UN to rush in to negotiate the deal. Istanbul Agreement.

Staying true to the classic Ottoman political and strategic conception of the Straits, the Turks warned early in the war "all littoral and non-littoral countries not to cross the Straits with warships", with the aim of limiting the maritime dimension of the conflict and thus preserving the stability of the Black Sea and guaranteeing its interests.

Both Russia and NATO complied fully with the Montreux dictate; Moscow because it is convinced that its security could be better guaranteed by the Turkish control of the Dardanelles and the Westerners to avoid an escalation and, in a certain sense, "close" the Russian fleet within those waters.

Moreover, from a logistical point of view, the closure of the Black Sea has not prevented the Atlantic Alliance from supplying the Ukrainians by sea from the Greek port of Alexandroupolis and by land in Poland, Bulgaria and Romania.

Since the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Turks have regarded the Straits as the Kilid-i Bahr (lock of the sea) to ensure their security and control of trade. For the sultans, the principle of closing the Black Sea and the regulation of foreign trade in those waters were pillars of the Empire's foreign policy.

On the contrary, Peter the Great's Russia posed, for the first time in the modern era, the problem of freedom of navigation in the Black Sea, which was equivalent, in the wishes of the Petersburg court, to replacing Istanbul in the regional hegemony on that stretch of coast.

The idea of ​​a "closed" Black Sea has been sponsored over the centuries by powers such as France, Great Britain and Italy (see the conduct of these powers both in 1853-1856 with the Crimean War and in 1877-1878 during the Russian-Turkish), but also from the United States (although they have not joined the Montreux Convention), while only recently has Russia also considered it more convenient to have a regulated navigation and controlled by the Turks than a total freedom to sail the waves.

Nothing suggests that, faced with the current grain crisis, Turkey can change its policy. On the contrary, having set its own stakes right from the start has made Ankara stronger.

Photo: Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri