With the invasion of Ukraine that began on Feb. 24, 2022, the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet blockaded the port of Odessa, Ukraine’s gateway to the world. It occupied Snake Island off Odessa at the beginning of the war. The Ukrainian Navy mined the access routes to the port of Odessa to prevent a possible operation by Russian amphibious forces. Commercial maritime traffic to the port of Odessa came to a halt, and Ukrainian grain was stuck in silos. Russia’s suspension of grain and fertilizer exports due to sanctions and 25 million tons of grain being stranded in silos in the port of Odessa caused the global food crisis to intensify.
While Russian warships continued to conduct a successful blockade of Odessa, the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of the fleet, with two Neptune-guided missiles fired from the Ukrainian coast shocked the Russian Navy. As Denmark and the US supplied Ukraine with Harpoon-guided missiles that could be fired from the shoreline, the Russian Black Sea Fleet began to deploy its warships outside the port of Odessa to protect them from the guided missiles and avoid the loss of a second warship, which could lead to a great humiliation for Russia.
As the Russian Air Force was unable to achieve regional air superiority in the west of the Crimean Peninsula, the Ukrainian army used Turkish Bayraktar TB -2 UAVs to neutralize Russian air defense units stationed on Snake Island and Russian patrol ships moored near the island. Finding it difficult to hold Snake Island militarily and suffering too many losses, Russia decided to leave the island. The fact that the Russian Black Sea Fleet had to station its ships far from the port of Odessa for protection, withdrew from Snake Island and was unable to protect its patrol ships against the TB-2 UAVs due to the lack of regional air superiority shows the military failure of the Russian Navy.
However, despite that failure, an agreement drafted at the initiative of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in line with Russia’s demands and providing for the establishment of a grain corridor in the Black Sea for the transport of Ukrainian and Russian grain to world markets was signed Friday by Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the UN. Under this agreement the sanctions imposed on Russia that impede the export of grain and fertilizers will be eased. Thanks to this agreement, Russia will gain important political and economic advantages. So how did Russia come to sign an agreement in which it benefits politically even though it has not been successful in the area of maritime operations?
To resolve the world food crisis, which has been exacerbated by the war between Russia and Ukraine, the UN secretary-general held bilateral meetings with both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin in April. This is because in order to alleviate the effects of the food crisis, Russia and Ukraine’s grain must be brought back to world markets together. Ukraine was initially not enthusiastic about the idea of establishing a food corridor, which was also put forward by Turkey. Ukraine wanted security guarantees that Russia wouldn’t launch an amphibious operation in the port of Odessa if it cleared the mines from the Odessa coast. While Russia initially refrained from giving such a guarantee, Russia’s failure in the blockade made a compromise a more profitable option for Russia. Russia tacitly gave the security guarantee demanded by Ukraine by withdrawing its forces from Snake Island, which could be used as an auxiliary base in a possible amphibious operation. Although Russia presented this withdrawal as a sign of goodwill, it was militarily obliged to do so. Russia politically concealed its military failure by withdrawing its troops from Snake Island at the diplomatically opportune time.
Russia’s withdrawal of its military forces from Snake Island accelerated the diplomatic initiative, also involving the UN and Turkey, for the establishment of a grain corridor in the Black Sea. The UN, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine have different motivations and priorities for the creation of the grain corridor. The UN wants to mitigate the effects of the food crisis by finding a solution that leads to Russian and Ukrainian grain being exported to world markets, and it wants to repair its image, which has been tarnished by its ineffective stance in the Ukraine-Russia war. Odessa is Ukraine’s gateway to the world. Before the war, about 80 percent of exports passed through the port of Odessa. Ukraine plans to both ensure the security of Odessa and reopen the port of Odessa to the world via the grain corridor.
Through its diplomatic efforts, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan aims to buy Russian and Ukrainian grain more cheaply and to gain international prestige by assuming the role of the leading country and leader in solving the global food crisis and turning this into domestic votes before the elections next year. With Russia’s plan to take Odessa militarily shelved, its first priority is to market its own grain and fertilizer to the world from its own ports, easing sanctions imposed on the country by making concessions on bank payments, insurance and transportation. The sale of Ukrainian grain from the port of Odessa and the establishment of a grain corridor won’t harm Russia’s interests at this stage. For Putin, facilitating Ukrainian grain exports is a lucrative option in return for the lifting of restrictions on Russian grain and fertilizer exports. For the EU, the transport of Russian and Ukrainian grain to African countries is an initiative that can be supported as it will prevent possible internal unrest in these countries and migratory movements towards the EU.
As a result Russia turned its military failure into political gain with political support from the Erdoğan government by backing the UN’s diplomatic attempt to resolve the world food crisis after the loss of Moscow’s flagship and the withdrawal from Snake Island.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.