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By Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 had a profound impact on shipping in the Black Sea. To prevent the Russian Navy from sailing into their ports and attempting to seize them in a coup de main, Ukrainian tugboats and naval auxiliaries mined the waters along the coast of the Gulf of Odesa. At the same time, surface units of the Russian fleet appeared off the coast and seized Zmiinyi Island, commonly referred to as Snake Island.
For ships like the Marshall Island-registered bulker MV Riva Wind or the Hong Kong-flagged COSCO containership Joseph Schulte, the war meant not only they were trapped, but the world had an issue with the export of vital raw materials, in particular grain, from the port of Odesa…We Have a Problem!
At the end of January, in an article for gCaptain, I wrote, “Both Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of corn and wheat and, therefore, major food suppliers around the world…Any conflict, or even the threat, has the potential to interdict or raise the price of such commodities around the world.” Since then, we have seen the food and fuel issue resonate to the forefront of world concern.
In early May, retired Admiral James Stavridis, who commanded NATO, examined what the Black Sea front of the Ukraine-Russia War would look like in the months ahead. He identified several key issues including, the Ukrainians intending to contest control near the coast, the Russians may use the sea as a “flanking zone” to come around the Ukrainian lines, and a blockade to sever the Ukrainian economy from global markets.
Another retired admiral, James Foggo, currently the Dean of the Center for Maritime Studies with the US Navy League, in a series of articles (Part I and Part II) has noted the Russian plan to dominate the Black Sea, and their intention to menace the world with hunger and revolution. Since its operations against Georgia in 2008, and its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia has expanded its control of the northern coast of the Black Sea.
While many focused on the Russian drive against Kyiv, the effort to secure the northern shore of the Sea of Azov, between Crimea and Donbas was essential to the Russians. Barge and inland trade down the Don River, from the Caspian Sea via the Don-Volga canal, and the entire Unified Deep Water System of European Russia that links not only the Black and Caspian Seas but also the Baltic and White Seas are essential to Russian trade.
This explains the Russian focus to neutralize Mariupol which served as a barrier for Russian ships to sail out of the Sea of Azov, via the Kerch Straits, and into the Black Sea. Currently, ships sail through the Sea of Azov under convoy by the Russian Navy with their AIS transponders turned off to mask them from Ukrainian forces.
This brings us to the question of what the world should do regarding the maritime developments in the Black Sea. We know that many countries have provided aid to the Ukrainians in their fight, both in terms of weaponry and intelligence. David Beasley, the executive director of the United Nation’s World Food Programme stated, “Truly, failure to open those ports in Odesa region will be a declaration of war on global food security. And it will result in famine and destabilization and mass migration around the world.”
This is a Job for Tom Hanks!
The resumption of food shipments has global implications and leaves the world with several options. These alternatives can be summarized in what I refer to as the Tom Hanks thesis.
The ships that are trapped in ports along the Gulf of Odesa, in both Ukrainian and Russian-occupied territories find them unable to return home (Apollo 13). The ships have not moved from the docks in months and many of the ships may not be able to sail without some repairs.
Some of the crews have been repatriated but others remain trapped on their vessels, mariners from around the world in a foreign land (The Terminal). These sailors did not mean to get themselves into this situation. They merely wanted to deliver their cargo and at the end of their voyages return home (Castaway).
This brings us to the heart of the issue facing the world, should the mariners be forced to fend for themselves, and perhaps aid will come to them if the ships are flying the correct flag and the mariners are citizens from a nation with a navy that can fight for them (Captain Phillips). Or should the major nations of the world, negotiate with Turkey to relax the Montreux Convention and allow them to sail through the Turkish Straits and defend shipping as it runs into the Ukrainian ports along the Gulf of Odesa (Greyhound)?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the US Maritime Administration have issued advisories regarding the situation in and around the Black Sea; albeit with dated and limited pertinent information on the developing situation. The biggest threat identified is that of mines – either laid by the Ukrainians or Russians – breaking loose from their moorings and drifting toward the Turkish Straits or the Danube River.
NATO does aid commercial shipping via their ATP-02.1 – Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping (NCAGS) Manual. However, the 54-page document merely provides information and recommendations. What is lacking is the presence of naval personnel and assets to assist should it be needed. While there are some NATO naval units in the Black Sea – those of Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey – no others have been in the area since January. There are air and ground assets in the area.
Of particular concern is that after the sinking of Moskva, and the Ukrainian assaults against the Russian position on Snake Island, the fleet of bulk vessels and tankers waiting to enter the Danube – the border between Ukraine and Romania – has grown. AIS tracking has shown a growing fleet of vessels at anchor in Romanian waters but only 15 to 25 miles southwest of Snake Island.
While the surface threat has changed, the Russians as recently as May 24 conducted a large demonstration in the Gulf of Odesa with the majority of their amphibious forces. The Russians still possess a sizable fleet in the Black Sea, including a force of five Kilo-class submarines. Add to this, the Russians moved in several jack-up rigs and seized Ukrainian oil platforms across the Gulf of Odesa, from Snake Island to Crimea to establish a picket line to monitor any ships sailing into or out of the region.
The Russian offensive has made them the biggest winners in the food crisis they have helped to create. With global wheat prices climbing by 50%, Moscow has been able to generate $1.9 billion in revenue from export taxes. The massive reduction in Ukrainian exports has prompted some European leaders to push for naval escorts of ships into the Black Sea and to reroute grain through other ports.
The latter is currently being done in a limited fashion due to issues with a difference in railway gauges between Ukraine and Europe, the utilization of Ukrainian ports along the Danube, and just the sheer volume of grain that needs to be moved. It is estimated that of the 6 million tons of grain usually exported by sea, only 1 to 1.5 million is getting out currently; not including that which has been taken by Russia and shipped out by them.
The Russians have not been quiet on the subject. They have focused the blame for the food shortage on the fact that Ukraine has mined its own waters and that Russia has announced the lifting of some sanctions and the opening of humanitarian passages to allow ships to sail. But Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has called the Russian announcement ‘Blackmail’. It is also unlikely, based on past Russian actions against merchant ships, including the killing of a Bangladeshi engineer and the sinking of the Estonian-owned vessel Helt.
The current situation stands with Russian grain and oil flowing out of the eastern half of the Black Sea, via the Kerch Strait and the port of Novorossiysk. The Russians have their navy centrally located at Sevastopol in Crimea. The Gulf of Odesa is a contested sea with the Russians making infrequent forays into the region and the Ukrainians remaining behind their minefields, but with the ability to strike by air, drone, and shore-based missiles.
Along the western shore of the Black Sea, the fight for Snake Island has become a war of attrition between the two opposing sides, while small and medium-size bulk ships and tankers, registered largely in open registries, brave potential strikes, and errant mines to load grain out of Reni and Izmail and offload needed fuel. Further south, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey monitor their territorial waters and ensure the safe passage of ships within their waters.
The potential does exist for the Russians to strike at ships loaded with Ukrainian grain or for the Ukrainians to hit Russian laden vessels, possibly with Ukrainian wheat. Such a situation could then see the Black Sea degenerate into the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf of the 1980s when Iran and Iraq targeted each other’s vessels and those of neutral states as their war dragged on over disputed territory. Hopefully, the Black Sea does not devolve into a situation akin to The Money Pit or worse, Saving Private Ryan.
Salvatore. Mercogliano is an associate professor of History at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina, a former merchant mariner, and creator of the Youtube channel “What’s Going on With Shipping?“
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