As the United Nations tries to negotiate a path for grain from Ukraine and tempers worries about a global food crisis, hundreds of mines laid along the Black Sea present a practical nightmare that will take months to resolve even after all. OK.
The Black Sea is crucial for shipping grain, oil and petroleum products. Its waters are shared by Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia and Turkey, as well as Ukraine and Russia.
Ukrainian government officials estimate that 20 million tonnes of grain cannot travel from what was the world’s fourth largest exporter before the February 24 Russian invasion.
Kyiv and Western leaders accuse Moscow of militarizing food supplies by blockading Ukrainian ports. Russia has said it wants Western sanctions lifted as part of any deal allowing exports to flow.
But even if a deal were struck and Ukrainian ports could reopen, the danger of sea mines laid by Ukraine and Russia would potentially delay shipments for months to come, maritime officials say.
“Sea mines have been laid in the approaches to ports and some exits from the port are blocked by sunken barges and cranes,” a spokesman for the United Nations maritime agency, the International Maritime Organization, said. one of the many organizations working to establish a sea passage for the supply of grain.
“Completely removing sea mines from port areas would take several months.”
Global cereal production is expected to fall short of demand in the 2022/23 season, according to the International Grains Council.
The loss of Ukrainian shipments will further tighten available supplies and is expected to drive up the prices of food staples such as bread, pasta and noodles, and contribute to food inflation, as world hunger has already reached levels unprecedented.
It is unclear what types of mines have been laid at this point, Western maritime officials say.
A Ukrainian Foreign Ministry official told Reuters in March that some 372 sea mines laid by Russia were of the “R-421-75” type, which were not currently registered or used by the Ukrainian Navy and had been captured by the Russian army during the annexation of Moscow. of Crimea in 2014.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement in March that Ukraine had mined the approaches to the ports of Odessa, Ochakov, Chornomorsk and Yuzhny with 400 obsolete anchor mines.
The Russian intelligence agency FSB also said in March that mines had drifted into the Black Sea after breaking loose from cables near Ukrainian ports, adding that the mines had been laid by Ukrainian forces. Ukraine said at the time that the FSB warning was wrong and that it had no information about mines drifting out to sea.
On Friday, the official of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said that Ukraine had placed mines. “We laid naval mines in exercise of our right to self-defence, as stipulated in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.”
On Friday, Russian officials in Moscow and at the London embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on May 26 that the port of Mariupol had been cleared of mines and urged foreign governments to “exert effective influence on the owners of the ships of the port of Mariupol to remove them from their permanent mooring place. “.
Some 84 foreign ships are still stuck in Ukrainian ports – many of which have grain shipments on board.
Odessa beaches are closed with signs warning of mines. Some munitions drifted as far as Turkey and Romania.
“It is not safe for ships to enter or leave at this time. Until the mines are cleared, this situation will not change,” said Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of the Navy. merchant, who is also working on the opening up to the sea routes.
Two sailors have already died and seven merchant ships have been hit by projectiles – including two sunk – around Ukraine’s coast while London’s insurance market has placed the entire region on its “high risk” list. which means skyrocketing costs for shipments.
“Underwriters, on the other hand, would need some sort of assurance that it was done to some degree by competent minesweepers,” said Neil Roberts, marine and aviation manager at the LMA, which represents the interests of all Lloyd’s of London underwriting businesses. insurance market.
Any clearance effort would be the biggest attempt since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Intelligence on the types of mines laid and their locations would be needed early on, said Gerry Northwood, a former captain who commanded warships in Britain’s Royal Navy.
“Minehunters should also be equipped with remote-controlled submersibles to locate and destroy mines,” said Northwood, a consultant with maritime security firm MAST.
Although the Black Sea is not particularly tidal or with strong currents, floating mines can still move significant distances over a period of time, said Duncan Potts, a former vice-admiral in Britain’s Royal Navy.
“What’s happening in Ukraine is that there seem to be a number of floating, untethered mines that are as much of a threat to you as they are to your enemy and are unpredictable,” said Potts, who now acts as a consultant to Western governments.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday that senior UN officials had held talks with Ankara, Brussels, Kyiv, Moscow and Washington over the past 10 days on the safe passage of grain.
An EU official said any talk of what the bloc would do specifically to help with mine clearance was “very hypothetical”, adding that Russia needed to start clearing the mines it had placed.
“If this is not achieved, there will be no maritime corridors,” the official told Reuters. “We will not pressure Ukraine to give up its defences. Any agreement that may be reached must be acceptable to Ukraine.”
Maritime sources say agreement would also be needed on which navies could be used to carry out work that would be acceptable to trading companies and insurers due to potential mistrust of any Russian effort.