Yale University Professor Timothy Snyder has described Ukraine's success in the Black Sea as the country’s key achievement in the second half of 2023. The American historian said that the Ukrainians, "to everyone's surprise," managed to deter the Russian Black Sea Fleet and open a maritime corridor for commercial trade.

In one of the materials reviewing the year 2023 in December, the CFTS also described Ukraine’s temporary maritime corridor in the Black Sea as the key breakthrough of 2023 and analyzed in greater detail the factors responsible for this success and the steps necessary to expand the capacity of Ukraine’s maritime exports.

In January this year, the British Ministry of Defense stated in an intelligence update that Ukraine’s ports exported more agricultural products in December 2023 than at any other point since Russia’s invasion, surpassing monthly volumes achieved during the UN- and Turkey-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative.

"Ukraine has achieved this because it has largely prevented the Russian Black Sea Fleet from operating in the western Black Sea, where it is held at risk by Ukrainian missiles and uncrewed surface vessels," the British Ministry of Defense said.


(Photo - Daniel Mihailescu/AFP) 

The achievements of the ports

The shift in the balance of power in the Black Sea resulted in 400 ships exporting 12.8 million tons of cargo between mid-August and the end of 2023 through the Black Sea corridor secured by the Ukrainian military. This figure had risen to 18 million tons as of 24 January, and the exports included not only agricultural products, but also mining and metal products, which are important for generating state budget revenues.

As a result, according to the Ukrainian Seaports Authority (USPA), Ukrainian port operators collectively handled about 62 million tons of cargo in 2023, including 56.3 million tons of export cargo and 5.3 million tons of import cargo. This figure is significantly higher than the approximately 51 million tons of cargo that port operators handled in 2022. However, it is 2.5 times lower than the exports in the pre-war years. For example, Ukrainian seaports handled 153.3 million tons of cargo in 2021 and 159.1 million tons in 2020.

Sanctions are not working

What about the aggressor country? Russian ports in the Sea of Azov-Black Sea basin, which account for one-third of all the cargo handled in Russia, handled 291.4 million tons of cargo in 2023, which is 10.4% more than they handled in 2022 (263.6 million tons). For comparison, the corresponding figures were 256.8 million tons in 2021 and 252 million tons in 2020.

In the years before Russia's full-scale invasion, the volume of cargo handled in Russian ports in the region was 1.5-2 times more than the volume handled in Ukrainian ports. Now, it is almost five times more. Despite the sanctions and restrictions announced by the West, Russia continues to increase its maritime exports and earn money to continue financing the war.

Although the European Union and the Group of Seven leading industrialized countries (G7) have announced restrictions on Russia's maritime trade, they are unable (or not very willing) to close the loopholes used by Russia to circumvent the sanctions quickly enough. The mechanisms for monitoring existing restrictions do not always work.

Over the past year, there have been repeated reports of tankers carrying Russian crude oil from Black Sea ports calling directly at EU ports (not to mention various "gray" ship-to-ship transfers of crude oil in the Mediterranean). "Why is this so? Because the European Commission itself has no mandate to enforce sanctions, and the national governments of EU countries did not need to enforce sanctions in such volumes," said Andrii Klymenko, the head of the Monitoring Group at the Black Sea Strategic Studies Institute.

European countries are also sometimes willing to buy Russian oil products that become, for example, a little Indian or Turkish along the way. India has significantly increased its imports of Russian crude oil in the two years since the war began, with the share of Russian crude oil in the Indian market rising to a record high of 23% in the summer of 2023 (only 2% before the war). Oil products produced in India from Russian crude oil are then exported to the European Union. Germany, for example, increased its imports of petroleum products from India 12-fold in the first half of 2023.

In the latest example, the Finnish-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) estimates that in December 2023, 62% of Russian oil products, chemicals, and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) were transported on tankers owned or insured in countries implementing the policy of capping the price of Russian crude oil. According to CREA analysis, insurance companies based in Britain insured ships carrying Russian crude oil worth EUR 120.6 billion from March 2022 to the end of November 2023. In the 12 months following the introduction of the price cap on Russian crude oil (from 5 December 2022), EUR 46.4 billion worth of Russian crude oil was transported in tankers using British protection and indemnity (P&I) insurance.

Weapons, diplomacy, and other arguments

Thus, it is obvious that one of the keys to ending the war is to limit the financial resources of the aggressor country, which are largely generated by maritime exports. This is where the Ukrainian presidential administration and Ukrainian diplomats should work to increase sanctions pressure and implement more effective monitoring of the restrictions already imposed on Russia.

Another important component of the effort to increase cargo flows from Ukrainian ports is the international coalition to clear the Black Sea of mines. In addition to the security component of the mine-clearing operation itself, the participation of partner countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey is an important factor. Regional leaders are beginning to realize that safe civilian navigation is a fundamental principle that can only be maintained through joint efforts.

However, the main lever for countering Russia in the Black Sea region is undoubtedly in the hands of the Ukrainian military. Russia is no less - and sometimes much more - dependent on maritime exports than is Ukraine. Therefore, building up Ukraine's military capabilities at sea should be a sufficient deterrent to reduce the level of Russian aggression against ports and shipping routes. It is not without reason that the Black Sea maritime corridor from Ukrainian ports was opened after successful Ukrainian attacks on the landing ship Olenegorsky Gornyak in the port of Novorossiysk and a Russian oil tanker near the Kerch Strait. Accordingly, force remains the only argument that the Russians understand. We hope the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the Ukrainian Navy, and Ukraine’s partner countries will find sufficient resources and means to protect trade routes and effectively counter the aggressor country.