For a month now, the Ukrainian people have been heroically defending themselves in the full-scale war that Russia unleashed on their country. Faced with powerful resistance from the Ukrainian army, the enemy has changed tactics and begun bombing peaceful cities and taking millions of ordinary citizens hostage. Another goal of the occupiers is to inflict maximum damage on the Ukrainian economy: infrastructure, large industrial enterprises, and “city-forming enterprises” are being destroyed, and the traditional logistical routes for exporting and importing products are being disrupted.
Even before the beginning of active combat operations, Russia began blocking the ports that handled the lion's share of Ukraine’s exports. The Black Sea has now become a new piracy hotspot on the world map, with the occupier’s fleet hijacking rescue and merchant ships, shelling bulk carriers flying the flags of other countries, and using minefields from Odesa to the Bosporus for blackmail. Russia is not only harming the Ukrainian economy, but it also poses a threat to maritime trade and threatens global food security by blocking the traditional supply routes for Ukrainian grain.
The Russian invaders can be brought down a peg by not only active military resistance, but also international sanctions. Many of the sanctions have already been imposed, making Russia the world leader in terms of the number of restrictions ever imposed on a single country. The world’s leading shipping companies – Maersk, Ocean Network Express, Yang Ming, Hapag-Lloyd, MSC, HMM – have already announced the suspension of operations in the Russian Federation. The number of companies in other industries that have announced the termination of their operations in Russia is in the hundreds. However, this is clearly not enough!
According to the generally accepted opinion, ending the purchases of Russian crude oil and natural gas should deal the maximum blow to the Russian economy and thereby limit the country’s ability to wage war, since crude oil and natural gas account for most of Russia’s foreign-exchange earnings.
At the same time, according to experts in the port industry, a complete naval blockade of Russia (a complete ban on ship calls at Russian ports, a boycott of ships that call at these ports, and denial of the Russian merchant fleet access to other countries’ ports) can reduce the aggressive appetite of the Russian leadership and the militaristic mood of the country’s population no less effectively than ending oil purchases.
The whole world has already seen that Russia is inhumanly violating all the rules of warfare in the air and on land. Its behavior at sea is not much better, as a result of which it has already been called a pirate. The occupiers hijacked Ukraine’s Sapphire ship, which was performing a rescue mission near Zmiinyi Island, in the first few days of the war. According to available information, five merchant ships flying the flags of other countries have been fired upon. According to the Panama Maritime Authority, three of these ships (the Namura Queen, Lord Nelson, and Helt ships) were under the flag of Panama. The Helt ship sank as a result of the Russian attack.
At least 10 Panamanian-flagged ships are still in the Black Sea, and the Russian Navy is restricting the exit of ships from the area. According to Ukraine’s State Sea and River Transport Service (the Maritime Administration), 94 foreign merchant ships were unable to leave Ukrainian ports as of March 13 because of the Russian occupiers.
Five of them may be able to leave the dangerous waters. The Russian occupiers escorted five dry cargo ships loaded with grain from the Berdiansk port to the roadstead in the Sea of Azov last week. They did this not out of good intentions, of course. Presumably, they did this to free up berths for Russian warships. According to the available information, the ships are preparing to transport grain to buyers but there is no accurate information about this yet.
The next trick of the Russian sea jackals, which one cannot bring oneself to call wolves, was the laying of mines in the Black Sea far beyond the borders of Ukraine’s territorial waters. This is another signal to the international community that just sitting behind Ukraine’s back is unlikely to work. After all, a threat to shipping from/to other European Black Sea countries has now emerged. According to the Institute for Black Sea Strategic Studies, the Russians have planted mines on the recommended sea routes from Odesa to the Bosporus, claiming that these are detached Ukrainian mines. The Bulgarian government has already stated that it will take increased security measures to ensure navigation because of this.
All these facts indicate that Russia should not go unpunished and that maximum restrictive measures should be taken against its ports and shipping.
Tighten the maritime knot
Addressing the U.S. Congress on March 16, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyi asked for another package of tougher sanctions, including banning Russian ships from entering U.S. ports. He made the same request to EU countries. “We need to act now so that all other potential aggressors can see that war is unprofitable. Therefore, all Europeans must close their ports to all Russian ships,” he said.
Ukraine's Infrastructure Ministry has stated that it has been urging the European Union to take systemic and painful measures against the Russian economy for four weeks now. One of these measures is closure of all ports to Russian and Russian-related companies.
A couple of weeks ago, the European Commission announced that it was preparing a new package of sanctions, including "possible actions against ports and ships." However, no consolidated decision has so far been made at the EU level.
Britain, which is not a member of the European Union, was the first to decide to close its ports to Russian-flagged ships or related parties. Canada followed suit.
Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia also want to ban Russian merchant ships from entering their ports without waiting for a joint decision by the European Union on this issue. "Off to Brussels for EU Foreign Affairs Council, we must continue to impose more sanctions against Russia and Belarus, including European port closures to the Russian ships, more support to Moldova and review our Strategic compass to respond to the new reality," Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics tweeted.
Bulgaria and Poland have also expressed their readiness. "I hope there will be a new sobering up of European leaders and that they will be able to adopt a new package of sanctions at the next meeting of the European Council. Poland proposes adding to this package of sanctions as soon as possible: a trade blockade, both of seaports – a ban on Russian-flagged ships with Russian goods – and a ban on trade by land,” Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on March 20.
Every little bit helps
The reaction followed not only from countries, but also from individual companies, international organizations, and trade unions of port workers. The sanctions have also already affected maritime technologies, particularly navigation.
For example, the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) decided to exclude the Russian Maritime Register of Shipping from its membership at the request of the Ukrainian Ministry of Infrastructure.
The Swedish Port Workers' Union intends to boycott ships linked to Russia from March 28. The corresponding letter was sent to Sweden’s Infrastructure Minister Karl Tomas Eneroth two weeks ago. About 20,000 U.S. dockworkers have also taken the same position. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Infrastructure, Belgian ports are also not handling cargoes for Russia.
As already mentioned, the world's largest container carriers have announced the suspension of ship calls at Russian ports.
All these have already had some effect. According to Western analysts, seaborne trade with Russia since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine and the imposition of international sanctions had dropped by 58% as of last week. The drop in ship calls is being felt not only near the war zone, but also far from the conflict. Ports in the Baltic Sea, like St Petersburg, responsible for a third of Russia’s nautical trade, now have 65% fewer ships making port calls, according to estimates by the investment bank UBS. Ports in the Pacific such as Vladivostok have seen volumes reduce by 52% since the war started on February 24. Meanwhile, about 46 million barrels of Russian oil are on their way to a destination outside Russia.
However, there can never be too many sanctions. According to the latest data, 213 ships, including 84 bulk carriers, 127 tankers, and 2 LNG ships, are scheduled to arrive at Russian ports in the next 2-3 weeks alone. Egypt and Turkey continue to import grain from Russia; coal exports continue from Russia to China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan; India, South Korea, and some other Asian countries continue to import Russian crude oil. However, while most shipowners have decided to avoid Russian ports in the wake of the sanctions and the dangerous conditions involved following the invasion, some owners are making massive gains from trips out of Russia.
Don't want to, but need to
Just like the European Union, the United States, and Canada were able to effectively close their skies to Russian aircraft, the global community should make an effort to organize something similar in the shipping industry.
Of course, this will lead to even greater financial losses, but are they comparable to the human losses being suffered by Ukraine? In addition, continued cooperation with the Russian Federation in the port industry should pose reputational risks to companies.
Poland wants to use financial levers to cover such risks. The country's government intends to impose an additional tax on companies – including international companies – that decide to continue doing business in Russia. Other Western countries could follow this example, including in the shipping industry.
An additional measure should be the imposition of sanctions on ships that call at Russian ports. Cargo handling services should not be provided to such vessels, and they could be seized for violating sanctions.
In addition, it is necessary to suspend Russia's membership of the IMO until peace and Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders are restored, as the Danube Commission has already done.