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Shipping becomes a military target as Black Sea threats escalate

Moscow and Kyiv put each other on high alert while Russia further tightens security in the Kerch Strait

Both Ukraine and Russia have put shipping on alert in the Black Sea, but it will be difficult for Russia to strike ships transiting the Black Sea and it is unlikely that Ukraine’s Danube River ports will be directly targeted

COMMERCIAL shipping was put on alert Wednesday that vessels are now to be considered a target amid escalating threats from both Russia and Ukraine.

Following another series of strikes targeting Ukrainian ports, Russia warned that ships heading to Ukraine’s Black Sea ports could be targeted and their flag states considered an ally of Kyiv. Ukraine later followed in a tit-for-tat escalation that ships destined for Russian ports would now also be considered targets. 

The escalating threat to Black Sea trade follows Russia’s decision to end the Black Sea grain deal, which had previously allowed ships to sail within a safe corridor.

“We believe that this is a coordinated effort to justify any attacks against civilian ships in the Black Sea and lay blame on Ukraine for these attacks,” said Adam Hodge, White House National Security Council spokesperson, spelling out the credible risk to shipping.

In addition to both Ukraine and Russia both declaring that trade heading in each direction would be considered a target, sailing areas in the north-eastern part of the Black and the Kerch-Yenikal Strait are also now considered off limits to commercial trade according to Ukraine as of Thursday morning.

The Kerch Strait connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov and is a critical part of Russia’s supply chain, particularly its grain exports.

Ukraine’s defence ministry says Russia has created a “danger zone”.

There are no ships actively trading out of Ukraine’s sea ports, with activity under the grain corridor winding down earlier this month.

However, vessels continue to transit the Black Sea to access Ukraine’s only operating ports located on the Danube River and bordering Romania.

“The mood on the Danube is bad, everyone is afraid of the Russian statement,” said Katerina Kononenko, a port agent at Avalon Shipping, a shipping agency specialising in the transit of vessels through the Sulina channel to ports in Romania and Ukraine.

Security analysts doubt the Danube ports will be targeted by the Russians.

“Russia has the military capability to strike the Danube ports, but that would be a very dangerous operation and I don’t think they will do that,” said Yörük Işık, a geopolitical analyst from the Istanbul-based consultancy Bosphorus Observer.

Given the proximity of the Danube River ports to Romania — NATO territory — it is unlikely that the ports themselves will be targeted as any potential collateral damage could be viewed as an act of war.

Vessels that are travelling to or from the Danube River ports via the Black Sea could still be at risk in international waters.

Russian aggression is likely to take three forms according to security analysts.

More naval mines could be dropped in the Black Sea. This is a possible tactic, but this method does not guarantee hitting a specific target so is less likely to be used.

Attacks against ships via land-based missiles is another possibility.

Russia has a significant arsenal of SS-N-26 “Strobile”, anti-ship cruise missiles, in Crimea.

Its fleet of submarines also pose a threat to commercial shipping. This method of attack may be favoured by Moscow given the difficulty in verifying these incidents.

In either situation, the best defence is for traffic to travel as far west in the Black Sea as possible.

Ukraine’s proposal for a new maritime corridor includes a path for ships with a draught less than 12 metres that pass through Romanian territorial waters.

“The waters in the west of the Black Sea are shallow, but if smaller vessels are travelling, and if they are even able to pass through Romanian and Bulgarian waters, then it will be harder for Russian submarine activity and the accuracy of anti-ship cruise missile attacks will further decrease,” said Işık.

While the use of the Russian Navy would be the most effective way to harass shipping in the Black Sea, it is unlikely the fleet will be deployed given previous losses.

While Russian authorities have been stoking tensions in the Black Sea, the government has simultaneously taken action to increase security in the Kerch Strait.

The bridge that links mainland Russia to the annexed territory of Crimea, which passes over the Kerch Strait, was attacked earlier this week.

It is difficult to assess the true scope of activity in the Kerch Strait due to extremely high levels of AIS gaps, but early analysis indicates movement through the maritime chokepoint has been severely restricted.

All ships that have called at Russia’s Sea of Azov ports transited the Kerch Strait prior to the attack.

Cargo carrying vessels continue to depart the ports of Rostov-na-Donu, Azov, Yesysk and Taganrog, including today, but many can be seen waiting in the area just north of the Kerch Strait.

Assessing the number of vessels waiting south of the Kerch Strait does not give an accurate indication of congestion, given it hosts two busy ship-to-ship transfer hubs.

In March, Russia’s transport ministry released new guidance for vessels navigating the Kerch Strait, according to documents reviewed by Lloyd’s List.

Ships travelling with cargo loaded outside of Russia have to give 15 days warning of planned date of travel.

Vessels carrying universal containers or with cargo loaded in large bags, as well as ammonia products, are prohibited from sailing through the Kerch Strait.


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