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UK to monitor Black Sea against Russia’s “weaponization of Ukrainian grain”

Russian attacks on Ukrainian ports have reduced the country’s export capacity by one-third and destroyed grain that could feed 1 million people for a year, the UK government says as it promises to step up surveillance of the Black Sea
grain deal
A bulk carrier leaves a Ukrainian Black Sea port on 1 September 2023. Credit: The Ministry of Communities, Territories and Infrastructure of Ukraine.
UK to monitor Black Sea against Russia’s “weaponization of Ukrainian grain”

The UK announced plans on Friday to increase surveillance of Russian naval activity in the Black Sea, in an effort to deter attacks on civilian ships exporting Ukrainian grain.

According to a statement from the Prime Minister’s office, the Royal Air Force will conduct flights over the Black Sea to gather intelligence and “call out Russia if we see warning signs that they are preparing attacks.”

The move comes after Russia pulled out of a deal in July allowing Ukraine to export grain through the Black Sea, a move the UK says has raised global food prices and “will cost lives around the world.” Under the Black Sea Grain Initiative brokered by the UN, food exports from Ukraine were able to resume following Russia’s invasion. In the first year of the deal, 33 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain reached vulnerable countries, according to the UK government.

Since withdrawing from the agreement, Russia has declared all ships bound for Ukrainian ports as military targets. The Prime Minister’s office said Russia recently fired shots at a cargo ship headed to a Ukrainian Danube port, in what could amount to a violation of international law.

The UK government says Russian attacks since July have damaged or destroyed at least 26 civilian port facilities in Ukraine, directly reducing the country’s export capacity by one-third. The infrastructure damage has also reportedly destroyed enough grain to feed over 1 million people for a year.

The UK surveillance operations aim to “deter Russia from carrying out illegal strikes against civilian vessels,” the government said. The Prime Minister will also announce a November summit on food security, as Russia’s actions drive up prices.

“Once again, Vladimir Putin is failing to show his face at the G20,” said UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is traveling to India on Friday for a G20 summit. “He is the architect of his own diplomatic exile, isolating himself in his presidential palace and blocking out criticism and reality.”

Sunak said Putin’s “stranglehold over the most fundamental resources” was having “terrible global consequences,” especially for the poorest nations dependent on Ukrainian wheat and grain. Before the invasion, Ukraine exported 41% of the world’s sunflower oil and was a major source of grain for the developing world.

The UK said it would contribute £3 million ($3.7 mn) to the World Food Programme for more grain shipments from Ukraine to countries in need. According to the WFP, Ukraine provided 80% of its wheat this year before Russia withdrew from the Black Sea deal. “This year- up until July when Russia pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative- WFP procured 80% of its global wheat grain from Ukraine,” the UK statement read.

Russia’s exit from the Grain Deal

  • On 17 July 2023, the Russian Federation withdrew from the Black Sea grain initiative, an UN-brokered agreement to unblock Ukraine’s ports and export its grain, and stated that it would not guarantee that it will not attack civilian vessels after that date. The Ukrainian defense ministry mirrored Russia’s threats to ships at sea.
  • After that, Russia launched massive missile attacks on Odesa and the region with missiles and drones, destroying ports, granaries, residential buildings, and other facilities. 
  • NATO has condemned the Russian attacks but has thus far only vowed to increase surveillance. Meanwhile, Ukraine has changed the course of its grain corridor so that it stays within Romanian waters. Reportedly, the US declined Ukrainian requests to escort commercial vessels in the waters of NATO countries to ensure that the grain corridor keeps functioning. 
  • The Institute for Study of War has observed that Russia seems intent on enforcing a de-facto naval blockade of the Black Sea by intimidating civilian vessels in it. Particularly, a Russian warship told a ship that sailing to Ukraine could get it treated as a military target, according to an intercept shared by Ukrainian officials on 28 July.
  • Nevertheless, on 31 July, merchant vessels sailed through Ukrainian territorial waters to ports on the Danube and Ukraine’s Navy opened up registration for civilian ships to use the new corridors in the Black Sea. 
  • Since then, ships are successfully sailing from Ukrainian ports through the corridors.
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