Shipping faces intimidation, harassment and credible threat of attack in Black Sea
Harassment of ships and potential forced boarding are anticipated as Russian continues to up the pressure on shipping to steer clear of Ukraine trades
While Russian threats have yet resulted in any direct strikes against commercial shipping, security analysts have warned that those vessels continuing to trade into Ukraine will likely face an intensifying campaign of threats and intimidation tactics
SHIPS entering the Black Sea are immediately being contacted by Russian vessels demanding to know details of their intended voyage.
Masters are altering Automatic Identification System destinations in a bid to avoid growing attention from Russian commercial and naval ships, but several reports of intimidation and harassment have left crew concerned for their safety.
Once clear of the Bosporus they are being monitored by the Russian navy corvette Sergey Kotov, which was deployed to the southern Black Sea earlier this week to patrol commercial shipping lanes.
That patrol is likely just the first part of a wider task group to intercept commercial vessels Russia believes are heading to Ukraine, according to the UK Ministry of Defence.
With the suspension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, the security situation for commercial shipping is back to where it was before the safe corridor came into operation: Ukraine is contesting Russian naval supremacy closer to Ukraine controlled shores, and Russia is trying to cut off supplies by sea to Ukraine.
Security analysts have told Lloyd’s List there is now a very credible threat to shipping entering the Black Sea with harassment, detentions and possible attacks on vessels anticipated as highly likely scenarios.
While the forward deployment of a Russian corvette does not fundamentally change the security risk assessment for commercial shipping operating in the Black Sea, it marks a significant shift in Russia’s preparedness to enforce a maritime blockade on Ukraine.
Nato announced on Wednesday evening that it was stepping up surveillance and reconnaissance in the Black Sea region, including with maritime patrol aircraft and drones. The move follows Russian missile strikes on Ukraine’s ports and a warning that it would attack civilian merchant ships, in what western officials say is an attempt to cripple Ukraine’s agricultural industry and disrupt global food markets.
If Ukraine cannot export grain, its economy will suffer. Food made up roughly two fifths of its total exports of $68bn in 2021.
The threat to shipping remains particularly high inside the Russian defined no-go area in northern Black Sea, but in the remaining parts of the Black Sea the threat is more unpredictable.
While Russia’s warning that it is prepared to target shipping has not yet resulted in any direct strikes, security analysts have warned that those vessels continuing to trade into Ukraine will likely face an intensifying campaign of threats and intimidation tactics.
“Harassment of shipping should come as no surprise and more drastic measures, for example such as ship detentions or even downright attacks, can’t be ruled out, especially if Russia’s strategic situation deteriorates further,” said BIMCO head of security Jakob Larsen.
Security analysts are divided over whether the threats are mere posturing on the part of Russia in a bid to win concessions and re-enter a resurrected version of the Black Sea grain Initiative within weeks, or a long-term blockade of Ukraine’s ports to stifle the country’s economy.
Either way, shipping is now facing a dangerous period of operations in the Black Sea and both US and UK government security advisers have raised concerns that the Kremlin may be preparing a false flag operation in the Black Sea.
The prospect of a ship being attacked under the pretence of carrying Ukrainian military cargo, or a ship collides with a mine are both scenarios being raised by several security analysts currently advising shipowners.
“I'm not going to be surprised if we wake up tomorrow and hear that Russia has boarded a bulk carrier, Iran-style, with a camera crew ready, a helicopter hovering over the deck and Spetsnaz guys coming down on the ropes,” said Cormac Mc Garry, associate director at Control Risks.
“That would be a very effective way of telling shipping to not come into Ukraine and they wouldn’t need to fire a shot. I think it's unlikely that there is much appetite to destroy a commercial vessel and risk the lives of mariners — I think it’s much more likely that they will continue to harass masters over the radio and perhaps conduct a few forced boardings, which is pretty low risk, but certainly sends a message”.
Russian attacks on grain silos and port infrastructure on the Black Sea coast and the Danube river, which forms Ukraine’s border with Nato member Romania, along with its withdrawal from the grain export deal, have pushed up wheat prices, renewing concerns about food inflation. However the attacks have not halted shipments.
The fleet of ships waiting to enter the Danube has been growing slowly for the past few weeks and the queue topped 108 vessels on Thursday, however this is not significantly above the congestion seen for much of the past month.
The swift return to operations at Reni, however, has done little to allay shipowner and charterer concerns that commercial shipping is now a potential military target. The risk to the Danube route has left several traders assessing the viability of remaining Ukraine grain export routes.
On Tuesday Lloyd’s List reported that port agents had been notified of three voyage cancellations in the wake of the Danube drone attacks from shipowners citing security concerns and increasing cost or lack of availability of insurance. That is a trend that has continued this week, albeit not in significant numbers.
For now, those owners and charterers continuing to operate are waiting to see what happens next.
Ukraine Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said on Wednesday via Twitter that in the past nine days 26 objects of port infrastructure and five civilian vessels have been damaged and partially destroyed by Russian strikes.
The latest attack comes as Russia President Vladimir Putin hosts a summit with African leaders were promised to send free grain to six African countries that have strong ties with Moscow.
Press reports on Thursday quoted Putin pledging 25,000-50,000 tonnes of grain each to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic and Eritrea.