Merchant shipping is at the sharp end of the escalating crisis in and around Ukraine, which risks dragging more combatants into the war with Russia.
NATO said Wednesday it was stepping up surveillance of the Black Sea region as Russia bombards port facilities and grain export infrastructure, including along the Danube where a Romanian-flagged ship was one of two suffering damage from drone attacks earlier this week.
The announcement from the defence organisation came after a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council, which was launched at a NATO summit in Lithuania earlier this month to coordinate cooperation between the military alliance and Kyiv.
Moscow backed out of a United Nations-brokered grain shipping pact with Ukraine 11 days ago and has since moved to strangle exports of the foodstuff from its enemy.
“NATO and allies are stepping up surveillance and reconnaissance in the Black Sea region, including with maritime patrol aircraft and drones,” a statement from NATO said.
The NATO statement criticised Moscow’s declaration that parts of the Black Sea’s international waters were “temporarily unsafe” for navigation.
“Allies noted that Russia’s new warning area in the Black Sea, within Bulgaria’s exclusive economic zone, has created new risks for miscalculation and escalation, as well as serious impediments to freedom of navigation,” the NATO statement said.
Russia has issued a Notice to Air Missions warning of naval military exercises in the Black Sea in an area that includes the exclusive economic zone of Bulgaria, a Nato member.
NATO deputy secretary-general Mircea Geoană said: “Russia is threatening civilian ships, terrorising peaceful cities, and destroying parts of the world’s cultural heritage with its brutal strikes.”
Moscow has warned that ships heading to Ukraine’s Black Sea ports could be considered military targets and is getting ready to enforce a blockade on Ukraine, according to the UK’s Ministry of Defence.
The Sergey Kotov patrol ship “has deployed to the southern Black Sea, patrolling the shipping lane between the Bosphorus and Odesa,” said the Defence Ministry in a tweet, adding: “There is now the potential for the intensity and scope of violence in the area to increase.”
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the UN, said one of Russia’s attacks this week destroyed 60,000 tonnes of grain, enough to feed more than 270,000 people for a year. She also said Moscow’s attacks on Chornomorsk, a port south of Odesa which facilitates nearly 70% of Ukrainian wheat exports to developing countries, will take at least a year to repair.
The US state department on Monday warned Washington believes Moscow may conduct a “false flag” operation against a civilian ship in the Black Sea intending to blame it on Ukraine.
“At this stage, at least, it looks like parts of the Black Sea will be off-limits for commercial shipping,” Ulf Bergman, senior economist at Shipfix, a chartering platform, told sister title Splash Extra yesterday.
“The main grain alternatives will be Canada, Russia, US, Argentina and Brazil probably leading to an increase in tonne-miles to markets in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia and eventually absorbing the hit that freight rates might have from the suspension of the grain corridor,” a note from Xclusiv Shipbrokers suggested.
This shift is unlikely to be temporary with consultants at Drewry arguing Ukraine’s partners will seek to ensure food security, considering there are inevitable long-term effects of the war on the harvest capacity of Ukraine.
Freight rates out of the Black Sea have fallen dramatically in the last 10 days, despite growing congestion. Supramax congestion in the Black Sea region is now nearing the record levels experienced during the pandemic in 2021, according to data from Signal.
Vessel tracking data shows sizeable clumps of anchored ships outside the capacity constrained Romanian port of Constanta as well as at the mouth of the Danube.