As the UN tries to broker a path for grain from Ukraine and temper worries about a global food crisis, hundreds of mines laid along the Black Sea present a practical nightmare that would take months to resolve even after any agreement.
The Black Sea is crucial for shipment of grain, oil and oil products. Its waters are shared by Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia and Turkey, as well as Ukraine and Russia.
Ukrainian government officials estimate 20 million tonnes of grain are unable to travel from what was the world’s fourth-largest exporter prior to the Russian invasion on Feb. 24.
Kyiv and Western leaders accuse Moscow of weaponizing food supplies by blockading Ukrainian ports.
Russia has said it wants Western sanctions lifted as part of any deal to allow exports to flow.
Even if any agreement were reached and Ukraine’s ports were able to reopen, the danger from sea mines planted by Ukraine and Russia would hold up shipments, maritime officials say.
“Sea mines have been laid in port approaches, and some port exits are blocked by sunken barges and cranes,” said a spokesperson with the UN’s International Maritime Organization shipping agency, one of several bodies working on establishing sea passage for grain supplies.
“Completely removing sea mines in the port areas would take several months,” they said.
Global grain production is forecast to fall short of demand in the 2021-2023 season, the International Grains Council says.
The loss of Ukraine shipments would further tighten available supplies and is likely to drive up prices for food staples such as bread, pasta and noodles and add to food inflation, with global hunger already at unprecedented levels.
It is unclear what types of mines have been laid at this stage, Western maritime officials say.
A Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said in March that about 372 sea mines laid by Russia were of the “R-421-75” type, which were neither registered with or used by Ukraine’s navy and were captured by the Russian military during Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said in a statement in March that Ukraine had mined the approaches to the ports of Odesa, Ochakov, Chornomorsk and Yuzhny with 400 obsolete anchor mines.
Russia’s FSB intelligence agency also said in March mines had drifted into the Black Sea after breaking off from cables near Ukrainian ports, adding that the mines were set by Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine said at the time the FSB warning was wrong and it had no information about any mines drifting out to sea.
On Friday, the Ukrainian foreign ministry official said Ukraine had placed some mines.
“We have installed naval mines in the exercise of our right to self-defense as stipulated under the Article 51 of the UN Charter,” they said.
Russia’s defense ministry on May 26 said that Mariupol harbor had been cleared of mines and urged foreign governments to “exert effective influence on the owners of the vessels in Mariupol port to remove them to their permanent mooring place.”
About 84 foreign ships are still stuck in Ukrainian ports — many of which have grain cargoes onboard.
Beaches in Odesa are closed with signs warning of mines. Some of the munitions have drifted as far as Turkey and Romania.
“It’s not safe for ships to get in or get out at the moment. Until the mines are swept, that situation is not going to change,” said Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, which is also working on opening maritime channels.
Any mine clearing effort would be the biggest attempted since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Intelligence on the types of mines laid and where they are would be required at the outset, said Gerry Northwood, a former captain who commanded warships with Britain’s Royal Navy.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday said that senior UN officials had held talks with Ankara, Brussels, Kyiv, Moscow and Washington in the past 10 days on safe passage for the grain.
An EU official said that any talk of what the bloc would specifically do to help demining was “very hypothetical.”
Russia must start clearing the mines it had placed, they said.
“Unless that is achieved, there won’t be sea corridors,” the official said. “We won’t pressure Ukraine to give up their defenses. Any deal that could be done needs to be acceptable to Ukraine.”
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Additional reporting by AP
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