How to Get the Grain Out of Ukraine?

July 05, 2022
10 min read
Photo Credit: BonnaMistress /
The threat of global food shortages, even famine, posed by Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian grain exports, has been making headlines across the globe for more than two months.

Ukraine, the world’s fourth-largest grain exporter in 2021, accounted for 10 percent of the global grain supply. However, the country is able to ship as little as a fourth of its usual export volume because of the Russian occupation of key ports such as Mariupol, the naval blockade of Ukraine’s remaining main harbor, Odessa, and the systematic air and missile strikes against the country’s strategic food storage and traffic infrastructure.

This has forced exporters to use railways and roads to transport the grain, creating significant bottlenecks. Based on available calculations, even under ideal conditions only 1.5 million to 2 million tons of grain could be transported monthly to Baltic and Romanian Black Sea ports. Sea transportation allowed monthly export volumes of up to 6 million tons in previous years. Ground transportation suffers from further logistical challenges. Goods delivered via wide-gauge Ukrainian railways must be either onloaded to European trains in one of the few two-gauge marshaling yards at the border between Ukraine and the European Union, or the bogies of the railroad cars must be changed, with both progress taking valuable time. Truck transport is hindered by complicated border-crossing regulations and because European insurance companies refuse to provide coverage on the war-torn soil of Ukraine, with the result that Ukrainian trucks make up almost all of the available fleet.

Odessa Is the Key

Attempts to remedy the situation and offset the risk of a coming global famine have been numerous. In June, US President Joe Biden unveiled a plan to construct large-capacity temporary grain silos on Polish soil. While these facilities may provide useful service in storing the cereals the destroyed Ukrainian silos cannot, they will offer no solution to the ground-transportation challenge. The European Commission hurried to declare Solidarity Lanes to free up additional trains and trucks, increase the capacity of transport networks and transshipment terminals, add flexibility on customs checks, and increase storage capacity. But the issue of insurance coverage remains unaddressed. And even if these efforts prove successful, experts agree there is no way the 20–25 million tons of grain currently in Ukrainian stores can be moved out of the country by ground transportation alone before the imminent arrival of harvest season.

The United States and the EU have invested considerable efforts to circumvent the Russian sea blockade via land routes. However, they left one uncomfortable fact unconsidered. The only real solution and the best hope of averting famine is the restarting of Ukrainian cereal exports from Odessa.

Since the failed Turkish mediation attempt, the reopening of the sea route appears to be a distant and unlikely possibility. Russia set several conditions for allowing a free shipping lane. First, the de-mining of the sea approaches to Odessa. The Kremlin then demanded that the West lift the sanctions imposed as reaction to its war of aggression. The negotiations were broken off due to well-founded skepticism toward Russia’s real intentions. Ukraine rejected removing the mines it laid as a defensive measure to block potential amphibious operations against its largest remaining Black Sea port as there was no guarantee that the Russian navy would not exploit the situation to launch an amphibious assault, while Western partners also remained unconvinced that Russia would abide by the agreement and refrain from harassing shipping.

In spite of this recent diplomatic failure, policy options to allow the export of Ukrainian cereals via sea lanes are not exhausted and deserve closer consideration. Let us take a closer look at the two key components of a solution: mitigating the threat posed by sea mines and ways to deal with the Russian sea blockade.

Dodging Mines

The use of mines has been in the toolkit of sea warfare since the 19th century. As a baseline rule since then, defensive minefields—like that offshore of Odessa—are not deployed to choke shipping, just to deter or hamstring enemy shipping in the given area.

Obviously, the deterrence effect of minefields stems from enemy forces not being aware of the exact location of the mines, and hence they either have to avoid the whole area or act with extreme caution under the permanent coverage of minesweepers or accept potentially high losses. In contrast, friendly naval forces can operate with considerable freedom in the area, because they know the exact location of the explosives and appropriate shipping channels can be laid out through the minefields for friendly and neutral vessels. 

Even in this age of spy satellites and surveillance drones, when the presence of ships in a minefield reveals the location of shipping channels, the requirements to secure safe shipping through minefields and of effective coastal defense are not incompatible. Just one safe shipping channel would be needed in the minefield, broad enough to allow the safe maneuvering of large cargo ships and their escorts, if needed, but not enough to permit a large amphibious operation. Such a narrow channel can be easily controlled with land-based coastal defense missiles and artillery. Unsurprisingly then, the first step toward a solution is strengthening Ukraine’s existing coastal defenses. 

Unfortunately, the mines laid in defense of Ukraine Black Sea ports pose a further threat as well. According to available open-source information, Ukrainian forces, out of necessity, used Soviet-era anchored, floating mines. Several of these mines broke free and drifted on the waves of the Black Sea, most likely causing the sinking of the Estonian merchant ship Helt in early March. Minesweepers might well be needed to escort freighters to and from Odessa. Since Turkey still refuses to allow passage for minesweepers from non-Black Sea nations through the Dardanelles and Bosporus, this task could be taken on by the Turkish, Romanian, and Bulgarian navies.

Another, more reassuring long-term solution could be to shift from old floating mines to state-of-the-art bottom mines that cannot break free and drift on the waves of the Black Sea. However, this is dependent on Western arms supplies and the effective operation of Ukrainian minesweeping and minelaying forces. The use of remotely controlled mines in the shipping channel could even allow the safe passage of freighters while still posing a serious threat to potential Russian invasion forces.      

The Russian Sea Blockade

In light of the recurring Russian behavior of repeatedly reneging on agreed humanitarian corridors, it appears futile to negotiate with Moscow about conditions for the passage of Ukrainian grain ships. Most likely it would treat the ships as hostile vessels. 

The key to any solution is not Ukrainian ships but neutral ones. International customary law rather precisely regulates how blockading navies should treat neutral vessels. The law regulating sea blockades is compiled in the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea of 1994. From a formal legal perspective, this is not a binding legal document per se. However, the international customary law it codifies is binding. International customary law has regulated modern sea warfare over the past century, and it is subject to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and, perhaps even more importantly, to the judgment of international public opinion. 

Under international customary law, neutral vessels have the right of free navigation in a war zone, including in the territorial waters of the belligerent parties. Belligerents, such as Russia, also have the right to establish sea blockades and to board and search all neutral ships that cross the blockade zone for contraband. In its Article 150, the San Remo Manual specifies that certain goods never qualify as contraband: medical aid, food, clothing, and essential sheltering equipment.

So, from a purely legal perspective, neutral merchant ships either carrying no cargo or carrying only medical aid, food, or clothing can be inspected by Russian naval forces, but they should be able to continue their journey to Odessa, unload their cargo, upload with grain, and, as neutral vessels bound for a neutral port, then travel unmolested across the Black Sea. 

Would Russia test the resolution of countries and shipping companies willing to send their merchant ships through the Russian blockade? Obviously. Could Russia illegally seize a large number of neutral vessels and hold them hostage for the duration of the hostilities? That would be a long stretch, especially as so doing would clearly undermine Moscow’s narrative that Western powers are responsible for the grain shortage.

The Western allies have two distinct options to exploit the situation. First, governments could provide insurance guarantees for shipping companies as well as financial incentives to encourage market players to do the job. Or they could hastily create state-owned shipping companies for the same purpose. Providing financial risk-sharing and insurance guarantees could be a perfect opportunity for countries that so far have underperformed in the delivery of military aid to Ukraine, like Germany, to live up to their responsibilities, or for countries that have serious concerns over the business interests of their merchant fleets, like Greece. EU diplomacy could also encourage African countries highly dependent on Ukraine cereal exports as well as the Gulf states, and perhaps India and China, to make use of their right to free navigation and take part in the exercise.

The second option would be for foreign companies to temporarily take ownership of the existing Ukrainian grain fleet, re-register the ships, and sail them under a neutral flag with at least partly neutral crews. While this option could significantly boost available transport capacities, it could also encourage an illegal Russian intervention with the argument that, in spite of their legal status, the ships are ultimately Ukrainian vessels and as such, in some regard, legitimate prizes to be seized. Hence this option should only be exploited when the shipping lane to and from Odessa is firmly secured and with vessels that are truly neutral in their origin.

How Might Russia React?

It is clear that options exist to secure the export of Ukrainian grain from the port of Odessa. What are the potential Russian counter-reactions?

The Russian military might seize the ships with the argument that they have contraband on board or deploy special forces to take command of the ships and infiltrate Ukrainian ports that way. To mitigate these risks, personnel of the OSCE or UN should accompany the neutral ships to guarantee that they are not carrying contraband and make sure no Russian boarding party is on the vessels while they continue their journey toward the harbor.

Second, Russian forces could try to disrupt merchant navy operations through concentrated air and missile strikes on Odessa. However, whether Russia would be ready to damage or destroy merchant assets of the United States or its European NATO allies and kill their crews is highly questionable. Even if the determination of the Western allies might be tested by sporadic attacks, a massive air campaign against a port filled with neutral merchant ships is unlikely. One can take the case of Haiphong as a historical analogy. During the Vietnam War, US forces refrained from air attacks against the main North Vietnamese port in order to avoid potential escalation in case of casualties on Soviet, Chinese, and Warsaw Pact merchant ships in the harbor. Russia might also follow the blueprint of the United States’ Operation Pocket Money in Haiphong and try to mine the identified mine-free shipping channel leading to Odessa in order to persuade neutral merchant vessels to flee the port and never return. These potential threats make it even more vital to strengthen the air defenses of Odessa or other Ukrainian ports to mitigate the risk of disruptive Russian air attacks.

The logistical bottlenecks hampering land transport mean that establishing a sea lane out of Odessa appears to be the only feasible measure to allow Ukrainian grain exports and avert the risk of widespread global hunger. Referring once again to the historical analogy of Haiphong in the Vietnam war, Western allies have to do no more and no less than what the Soviet Union, China, and Warsaw Pact countries—but also West Germany and the United Kingdom—did during that war: Make use of the freedom of navigation and send neutral ships to the port of the besieged nation. This time to Odessa.                                                                                  

An earlier version of this article was first published by Transitions on July 1, 2022 under the headline “How to Get the Grain Out of Ukraine?