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Why NATO Can’t Move Into the Black Sea and Save Odessa 

The war will have to be won on land.
March 8, 2022
Why NATO Can’t Move Into the Black Sea and Save Odessa 
Bulgarian and NATO navy ships take part during Bulgarian-NATO military navy exercise in the Black sea, east of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, Friday, July, 10, 2015. (Photo by NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Every morning, the U.K. Defense Ministry tweets an updated map describing the situation in Ukraine, and every day, it gets a little worse. Monday’s map looked like this:

Because Kyiv is the capital and main population center, most attention has been focused on the northern front, from east of Kharkiv to west of Kyiv. But look southward: From its initial staging area in Crimea, the Russian military has succeeded in wresting control of large parts of the coast from Ukrainian forces. While maps like this are of limited utility, and do not capture the intricacies of what “control” over a given area really means, it’s enough to understand that the most significant Russian progress has come along the Black Sea.

It’s worth considering exactly why that is while there might still be time to do something about it.

The ports along the Black Sea (southwest) and Sea of Azov (southeast) account for about 85 percent of Ukraine’s grain exports. Ukraine supplies 13 percent of the world’s corn and a similar share of its wheat—meaning that disruptions to trade along Ukraine’s coast could reverberate in food markets around the world. Ukraine’s seaports also account for about 80 percent of its ferrous metallurgical exports.

The major port cities that Russian forces have yet to occupy are Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and Odessa on the Black Sea. The former is under blockade, and the latter may come under attack any day. And the de facto blockade of Ukrainian ports by the Russian Navy began even before the recent land and air operations.

The assault on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports should be understood as economic warfare by the Russians. Not only will the interruption of normal trade deprive Ukraine of the resources it needs to sustain a war effort, but it will also impose costs on almost every country in the world, either directly or indirectly, for not helping Russia swallow its neighbor.

Can NATO do anything to allow Ukraine access to Black Sea trade routes?

Probably not.

The first possible option would have been to create land routes around the naval blockade. But there simply aren’t enough trucks to make up for the volume of goods cargo ships can carry, and even if there were, they would realistically only be able to move goods to Europe, rather than to the whole world as ships can.

What about having NATO forces escort cargo ships through the Russian blockade, daring the Russians to try and bully the American Navy rather than just defenseless merchant sailors?

This, too, is impossible because of the Montreux Convention of 1936. Under that treaty, countries along the Black Sea get special naval privileges, and other countries are strictly limited in what ships may enter the sea (for example, no aircraft carriers or submarines), how many at a time, and for how long.

Turkey, which controls the straits linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, gets to decide how these rules are enforced, and Ankara has been wishy-washy on whether it either wants to or even can use its privileges under the treaty to disrupt Russian operations.

Now, the United States isn’t a signatory of the Montreux Treaty, so technically these rules don’t apply to the U.S. Navy. But American warships have traditionally respected them anyway—not least because of the ten countries which are signatories, eight are U.S. allies: France, the U.K., Australia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and Japan.

More to the point, asserting our right to use this legal technicality would mean sailing a U.S. warship right through Istanbul.

If using the U.S. Navy to break the blockade isn’t an option, then what about our treaty allies? Well, the ones with more capable navies aren’t Black Sea states, so their access is limited. And the Black Sea states don’t have big enough navies, even though they have plenty of access. Catch-22.

One possible option would be to give Ukraine Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Originally developed by the Navy in the 1970s, more than 30 countries now use the weapon. If sinking a couple Russian cruisers wasn’t enough to end the blockade, it would at least raise the costs for the Russian Navy.

Of course, it’s much easier to deploy, train on, and test a new (at least to the Ukrainians) weapons system when there’s not already a war. Meaning that the best time to give Ukraine Harpoons would have been at some point between 2014 and last month. (The same goes for the Stinger and Javelin missiles now being ferried frantically across the Polish-Ukrainian border.)

There are other, even less attractive options: small boat attacks against warships, laying mines to endanger the blockading ships, attacking the Russian Navy by air, or other acts of maritime guerrilla warfare. But these would likely be suicide operations, for all intents and purposes.

The hope of keeping Ukraine’s ports open is probably unrealistic at this point. The only way to win the war at sea is victory on land.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.