Black Sea squall battle could define war in Ukraine: Peter Apps

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LONDON — In late April, trucks bearing license plates from Russian-occupied Crimea descended on the southern Ukrainian town of Melitopol, emblazoned with the letter “Z”. According to local mayor Ivan Fedorov, the convoy – filmed and broadcast on social media platform Telegram – was carrying grain seized by Russian forces from silos around the city.

Exactly where he was later taken is unclear. However, images from the Maxar satellite company of the Crimean port of Sevastopol showed two Russian bulk carriers – the Matros Pozynich and the Matros Koshska – loading alongside grain silos on May 18 and 19 before sailing, most likely eastward. ally of Russia, Syria.

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Ukrainian officials say the two sets of images are evidence of massive looting of grain reserves in areas seized by Russia since its Feb. 24 invasion, alongside what Ukrainian and Western officials say they also deliberately targeted Ukrainian agricultural infrastructure and a blockade of its ports that produced a global food crisis.

Three months later, the war is not just a brutal competition of tanks and artillery in the contested Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. It has become a much broader economic and strategic confrontation, upending long-established global supply lines and industries that have become battlegrounds in ways that a globalized economy struggles to manage.

Last year, Ukraine fed around 400 million people around the world, according to the World Food Programme, with Ukraine and Russia between them being the main source of livelihood for much of the Middle East and Africa. Both shipped much of that food through Black Sea ports — and aside from the handful of Russian shipments to Syria, that has largely ceased.

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With Ukraine’s main harvest season fast approaching, what happens in the coming months will have profound implications for households and the global economy. In areas controlled by Ukraine and Russia, there is a frantic race to empty silos of at least 21 million tonnes of last season’s grain so that the new crop can take its place.

FOOD CRISIS HARNESS RHETORIC

It can be a challenge. Ukraine normally exports 6 million tonnes of grain per month by sea and barely handles 1 to 1.5 million by rail. Harvesting of spring crops has already been severely limited in the war-torn east of the country, while attacks, fuel shortages and the exodus of millions of Ukrainians will also affect production.

The rhetoric is hardening on all sides. On Tuesday in Davos, European Commission President Ursula von den Leyon called on Russia to unblock the Black Sea, echoing comments by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last week in which he blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin to hold the global food supply ‘hostage’.

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This week, the Netherlands agreed to supply Ukraine with American-made Harpoon anti-ship missiles, as Western concerns over the growing food crisis explicitly justified improving Kyiv’s ability to strike Russian ships.

A suggested plan – pushed by the Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania, as well as some former Ukrainian officials in the West – would see NATO warships enter the Black Sea to escort food shipments from the Ukrainian port of Odessa, potentially putting them in direct confrontation with Russian forces imposing a de facto blockade.

This prompted a furious reaction from Russian state media on Tuesday, warning that such an action risked sparking a nuclear war.

Who ultimately retains access to and control of these key Black Sea ports is of growing importance – and will be vital to any eventual peace negotiations.

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BLACK SEA SUPPLY LINES

Last month, the Russian military said Moscow was aiming to take control of Ukraine’s entire Black Sea coast, from Donbass to the neighboring Moldovan separatist region of Transnistria. It would devastate the Ukrainian economy, although Russia currently lacks the military capability to do so quickly.

But Moscow’s forces are slowly advancing in the Donbass, while the Kremlin is accelerating Russian citizenship for areas it controls – including major grain-producing regions around Melitopol and Kherson, the latter a major rail hub for Odessa, still controlled by the government.

Ukraine and some of its allies, meanwhile, say they want Russia to be swept away from all the territory it has seized since 2014, which would include Crimea and Sevastopol, home of the Russian fleet of the black Sea. This could protect Ukraine’s exports in perpetuity – but it would also be considered a strategic disaster by the Kremlin, likely producing new atomic threats.

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For now, moving Ukrainian supplies through Poland and mainland European states requires transferring them from the wider Soviet railway wagons to the narrower-width ones used by the rest of Europe. There is talk of shipping goods to Baltic ports in Latvia and Lithuania – but if that would avoid having to leave the old Soviet rail system and transfer goods to new trucks, it requires the support of the Kremlin’s ally, Belarus.

Russia, meanwhile, manages to get much of its grain into the international export market, particularly to Africa, the Middle East and Asia – although, as with its fuel exports, it has to sell at a reduced price because of Western sanctions. This, however, is not enough to stop the spike in global fuel and food prices, with another potential crisis later in the year.

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Nor is it the only challenge. The huge Azovstal factory in Mariupol – now largely destroyed and captured by Russian forces – was one of the largest producers of noble gases such as xenon, argon and neon, the latter being vital for the production of microprocessor chips. If Russia can restart production, it would put almost all production of these gases in the hands of Moscow and Beijing, giving them a new stranglehold.

It is therefore not surprising that this week in Davos, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg argued that Western freedom and democracy were more important than globalized free trade, urging Western nations to build new infrastructures and to strengthen their resilience.

Next winter will challenge that, especially if much of Ukraine’s harvest has been lost, plantings restricted, the Black Sea still blocked and Russia’s energy supply to Europe reduced before new renewable and nuclear sources emerge. be put online. It could hit the world’s poorest hardest and divide the West – and whatever the outcome, it will shape the post-war world.

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*** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan and non-ideological think tank. Paralyzed by a car accident in a war zone in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016 he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labor Party. (Peter Apps https://twitter.com/pete_apps www.pete-apps.com Editing by Tomasz Janowski)

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