Ukrainian Trade Blockade: Foretaste of Russian Hegemony in the Black Sea (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 120

Russian fleet in the Black Sea (Source: RIA Novosti)

On July 17, Russia unilaterally suspended the implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative (“grain deal”), the year-old arrangement that has allowed Ukraine to export grain—albeit under Russian-imposed conditions—from the three ports in and near Odesa. The Kremlin and its navy had (until now) only permitted Ukrainian agricultural exports from the Odesa ports, interdicting all other Ukrainian exports and all imports there. On July 18, Russia snapped the blockade back in place.

Moscow’s suspension of the grain deal turns Ukraine practically into a landlocked country until further (Russian) notice. Russia has, from February 2022 to date, either occupied or fully blockaded all of Ukraine’s other commercial seaports: Mariupol and Berdyansk on the Azov Sea, Kherson and Mykolaiv on the Black Sea.

From July 18 through July 24, Russia repeatedly launched drone and missile strikes on Odesa, nearby Chornomorsk and—unprecedentedly—on the Ukrainian ports along the Danube River. These relatively small ports, Reni and Izmail, provide outlets for Ukrainian grain to bypass Odesa en route to international markets via Romania, in limited but growing volumes. The Russian projectiles hit Reni and Izmail only a few hundred meters from Romanian territory on the opposite shore of the Danube. These nighttime strikes damaged or set alight (apart from the Odesa Cathedral) grain-filled storages and agricultural companies’ offices in the ports of Odesa, Reni and Izmail. A Romanian cargo ship was also slightly damaged (Ukrinform; UNIAN, July 19–25;, July 25).

By hitting these riverine ports for the first time, Russia implicitly threatens to extend the theater of its military operations fairly deep inland (some 80 to 100 kilometers) from the Black Sea theater of active war. These strikes accompany Russia’s decision to fully blockade the three seaports of Odesa, signaling that Moscow does not rule out interdicting the riverine trade as well. These strikes seem calibrated as a preliminary warning to all concerned—Ukraine, its neighbors, international shipping and maritime insurance companies, as well as Ukraine’s Western partners—that inland riverine ports might not provide safe alternatives to the Russian-blockaded Odesa.

Russia’s suspension of the grain deal, full blockade of Odesa and attacks inland follow in the immediate wake of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) summit on July 11 and 12. This fell short of communicating resolve on Ukraine’s membership prospects (though slightly improving on a 15-year-old decision in this respect) and made short shrift again of Russian threats in the Black Sea basin (the communiqué included for the first time ever a paragraph dedicated to the Black Sea at Romania’s insistence, but it was placed near the bottom and lacked actionable elements) (see EDM, July 13, 17, 19).

These uncertain political signals may have emboldened Russia to act as it just has. No Western naval ships have entered the Black Sea since January 2022, leaving the Russian fleet with a free hand in most of the Black Sea basin. This is partly a consequence of NATO and US caution as well as Ankara’s closure of the Turkish Straits to its own allies, in a discretionary application of the Montreux Convention. Its participation in the grain deal is Turkey’s small consolation prize for its defunct ambition of a naval condominium with Russia in the Black Sea.

The Grain Initiative was launched by Russia, Turkey, the United Nations and Ukraine in July 2022. It lifted Russia’s blockade on Ukrainian grain exports from the three ports of Odesa but did not lift Russia’s interdiction of non-agricultural exports and all imports from the three Odesa ports; nor did the grain deal affect the full blockade of Ukraine’s other remaining ports (see above).

Russia imposed its own conditionalities for cooperating within the agreement. These included: first, inspection procedures that enabled Russia to delay or turn down cargos and ships, which Russia predictably did during the arrangement’s 12 months of operation; second, limiting the arrangement’s duration to a few months, with possible, but not mandatory, prolongation, giving Russia leverage over the other three parties (see above); and third—perhaps Russia’s priority in this arrangement—lifting certain Western sanctions on Russia’s agricultural sector in return for Moscow’s consent to prolong the initiative.

Kyiv had to accept the first two conditionalities under the duress of Russia’s full blockade of Ukrainian maritime trade, as the situation was until July 2022. Ukrainian officials regarded the grain deal as a temporary expedient while scrambling to open alternative—albeit more costly—export routes for its grain (including the Danube ports that Russia has just attacked). The UN Secretariat and other specialized agencies prioritized bringing Russian and Ukrainian grain from the Black Sea onto world markets to lower prices, having developing countries particularly in mind. Washington shared this priority and continues to do so, pleading for the suspended arrangement to be reinstated.

The European Union, the United States and other Western countries have, thus far, refused to lift or ease sanctions in return for Russia’s cooperation with the grain deal. The UN Secretariat has apparently suggested some “creative solutions,” but Moscow has turned these down (TASS, July 16, 25). Russian President Vladimir Putin has consequently ordered the whole arrangement to be suspended through non-prolongation.

Russia’s primary goal in suspending this arrangement is not to re-impose a full blockade on Ukrainian agricultural exports—at least not necessarily. Rather, Russia aims to restrict and constrain those Ukrainian exports by controlling export flows through the Black Sea (impinging even on the Danube route), attaching conditions to Russia’s indispensable cooperation (under the threat of force) and doing so preferably under the legitimacy of an international arrangement in which Russia wields unmatched influence, as in the grain deal.

Even as NATO is successfully turning the Baltic Sea into the alliance’s lake, Russia is well on course to achieving hegemony in most of the Black Sea basin (see EDM, July 19). Addressing the Aspen Security Forum on July 22, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated: “Do not forget that the Black Sea does not belong to Russia. Here are Ukraine, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria. … It is crucial to have rules-based relations in the Black Sea. But Russia views the Black Sea as simply Russian” (, July 22).

*Read Part Two.