Russia’s Ukraine Objectives Have Become Clear – Control Of The Black Sea
If successful, Russia will effectively control both northern and southern European supply chain routes to Asia
The Ukraine conflict is almost ‘overreported’ in the Western media, with constant news that Russia is losing the on-going battles and that troops are constantly being defeated. Western media is being fed information from Ukrainian, not Russian sources, which may account for the quality gap, and also little understanding of how Russia’s advances impact non-Ukrainian interests.
However, a map released by the Institute for the Study of War, (ISW) a US based think-tank on May 15 quite clearly shows where Russian battle lines and objectives are taking shape. It is obvious that Russia’s goal in the Ukraine conflict is an increased naval presence in the Black Sea.
None of this is mentioned in Western media, again either because they are not privy to the correct levels of information, or that there is a disconnect in understanding what Russia’s intentions are and the implications. However, from the ISW analysis it appears the objective is crystal clear – securing the Black Sea and Russia’s southern coast. Odessa is the next main port to the West, and has already been the subject of Russian attacks. Odessa has long been a key Black Sea port dating back to ancient Greek and Roman times and is Ukraine’s largest seaport with a capacity of 40 million tonnes. To put that into context, that is roughly 8% of the capacity of Singapore, but still a regionally significant amount. In total, Ukraine’s Black Sea ports handled 160 million tonnes in 2021 – or about 30% of Singapore or Shanghai’s total.
Securing the Black Sea coastline and annexing it cuts Ukraine off from all shipping supply chains and seriously impact the exports of its globally important wheat harvest. This will have significant implications on global food supplies and will be one reason why many countries have now banned the export of grains. While Ukranian grains can reach the EU overland, access to other markets will become more expensive and time consuming. This will affect countries in North Africa, the Middle East and buyers in Asia. At the same time, those grain supplies east will in future be serviced by Russia, already the world’s largest exporter. Russia still has vast tracts of fallow land that can be made productive.
Russia’s ability to hold the Black Sea will also depend partially on Turkey, which controls the southern coastline. NATO has expressed a desire to send patrol and military ships to the Black Sea, where access is controlled by Turkey through the Sea of Marmara. International treaties allow passage for commercial vessels but must seek Turkish permission for warships and other military vessels passage. Thus far Turkey, a NATO member, has refused (as it has also refused to accept Finnish and Swedish membership of NATO). This would leave Turkey and Russia in control of the Black Sea.
There are already signs that Russia intends to concentrate on this as earlier in the week it resigned from the Baltic Sea Council, effectively signaling that it considers future maritime trade routes from the Baltics to be dead. That in turn has serious economic consequences for the EU ports and economies of Copenhagen, Gdansk, Helsinki, Kiel, Klaipeda, Lubeck, Malmo, Riga, Stockholm, Tallinn and Trelleborg amongst others. Russia’s St. Petersburg, Primorsk and Ust-Luga ports will also be affected, however Northern Europe will bear the brunt of this huge reduction in trade flows. For Russia, control of the Black Sea routes are the obvious replacement.
It also means that with the overland Asia-EU supply chains via rail freight through Russia now being abandoned, Europe’s only non-Suez connectivity route to the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East and Asia lies via the multi-modal Black Sea routes, which connect the southern EU ports of Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania through the Black Sea to these markets. In cutting off Western Russia from supply chains to the EU, Brussels has merely moved the problem south – and with less control than before. It should also be noted that Russia possesses a naval base at Port Sudan, on the Red Sea coast and could influence Suez Canal traffic should it wish, while it also has a significant coastal presence at Port Said. China also possesses a Naval facility at Djibouti, on the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
Europe, for all its rhetoric about Ukraine, and whatever the complications of the issues with Russia, in terms of its supply chains appears to have completely misunderstood the implications of picking a fight with Russia. Brussels has somehow managed to talk its way into a serious diminishing of supply chains and their influence over them, certainly as concerns access to the Caucasus, Central Asia, Middle East, East Africa, the Indian Ocean states, and Asia. Executives, route planners and risk analysts should take note. Russian supply chain managers meanwhile will be very hard at work – one can expect Baltics expertise to be shifted south.