How to break Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports

placeholder when loading article action

When I was the operations officer for the Aegis guided-missile destroyer in the late 1980s, we were sent on missions to the Arabian Gulf. In the so-called tanker war with Iraq, the Iranians are trying to close the crucial Strait of Hormuz.

The rest of the world needed to keep oil flowing and opted for a rather dramatic solution: escorting a fleet of American-flagged tankers in and out of the narrow waterway. From the hot summer of 1987 to the fall of 1988, the operation, called Operation Sincere Will, was mostly successful. (Admittedly, a great tragedy occurred during this period, when an Iranian jet was shot down, killing 290 people.)

Earnest Will kept the oil flowing and took influence away from the Iranians. My cruiser Valley Forge was successfully deployed, and the mission had important implications for global geopolitics and energy supply.

With the world facing food shortages due to Russia’s illegal blockade of Ukraine, the United States and its allies should consider a similar response.

Ukraine supplies a large portion of the world’s wheat (about 7 percent of global exports), sunflower oil and other important agricultural products. Russia’s actions are not only illegal under international law, but are likely to trigger famine in the already unstable MENA region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has maritime control in the northern Black Sea because his fleet, with two dozen important warships, is by far the most powerful in the region. The fleet, which has 25,000 sailors and about 40 surface combatants and seven submarines, remains strong even after losing its massive Slava-class flagship, the Moskva, in a Ukrainian cruise missile attack in April.

While NATO allies Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria have strong forces in the Black Sea, Ukraine has few navies to challenge Russia’s blockade. Russian troops are deployed along its coasts, poised to kill the economy, with the side effect of preventing agricultural products from reaching their intended markets.

Moscow is using a tactic reminiscent of that employed by Union troops against the agricultural South during the American Civil War. Known as Project Anaconda, the sea partially deprived the Confederacy of hard currency by preventing cotton exports after snakes that suffocated victims to death. Several European countries have challenged the naval blockade, with little success.

Putin is learning from Lincoln’s playbook, and it’s working. The Russians are now proposing negotiations to allow food shipments in exchange for lifting Western sanctions, which the United States and its allies will not accept.

This brings us to the idea of ​​breaking the blockade by escorting merchant ships. The first challenge is the most obvious: who will escort? This can be done under the auspices of the United Nations, NATO or a coalition of nations willing to take on provocative and dangerous tasks.

The most likely approach is the latter, led by the US, possibly including the UK and France, and perhaps the Black Sea states of Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria.

The second challenge will be clearing the mines, which have been used by both Ukrainians and Russians to try to control the waters off the Ukrainian coast. It is for this purpose that NATO has a standing force of minesweepers. This fleet operates under the command of one of my successors, General Todd Walters, Supreme Allied Commander.

Third, countries imposing any blockade would need to work with major shipping nations and international merchants who carry and own food and other products. This can be organised by the London-based IMO. As part of the United Nations, when I was the NATO commander, the IMO played a similar role in organizing the international response to piracy off the coast of Africa.

It may also require re-listing some merchant ships to the nationalities of countries participating in the operation, as the United States has done in the Gulf.

Ultimately, the task is to inform Russia of the plan and to ensure that it understands that the coalition forces conducting the operation will not tolerate any interference – but also do not want to engage Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Moscow may be shouting, but its idea of ​​attacking NATO warships in international waters is low. If the Russians do something stupid in an unfavorable situation, there will be a corresponding use of force.

We have reached a critical point: food shipments have been cut off, the Ukrainian economy has been devastated, and an impending food crisis must be avoided. Democratic allies should explore a “sincere will to act” approach. Simply keeping Putin on the high seas won’t work.

More from Bloomberg Views:

• Russia’s sinking warship is a warning to all navies: James Stavridis

• What Ukraine can learn from Finland’s position 80 years ago: James Stavridis

• Russia is right: US is waging proxy war in Ukraine: Hal Brands

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. Retired U.S. Navy Admiral, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, Dean Emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Vice President of Global Affairs at The Carlyle Group.

More stories like this can be found at