Why the Black Sea became the crucial new battleground of the war in Ukraine

A sign warning of the danger of mines on a beach in the city of Odessa, in southern Ukraine, on the Black Sea. (Europa Press/Contact/Yulii Zozulia) (Yulii Zozulia/)

The most spectacular actions of the last weeks in the war launched by Russia by invading the Ukraine moved to the waters of the Black Sea. Drones with explosives that hit Russian cruise ships, a Russian naval blockade of Ukrainian ships that try to leave with the grain that feeds a large part of the world, attacks on strategic coastal cities and missiles against the bridges that connect Crimea with Ukraine and Russia. And the extension of the conflict to this naval zone means that it involves new actors such as Romania and Türkiye.

Far from the front in Zaporizhzhya or the bombings in kyiv, the Black Sea was relatively calm during the first year of the war. When the Russian invasion of February 2022 took place, it seemed that one of the objectives of the Kremlin forces was to take the strategic city of Odessa, the pearl of the Black SeaBut after an emblematic incident on an island near the old Greek port, the fighting turned to Donbas, the industrial region on the Russian-Ukrainian border. The rest were sporadic attacks on the bridges that connect Russian territory with the Crimean peninsula and that serve as a Russian supply line.

But now it is different. In recent weeks, Russian warships have been patrolling the Black Sea, launching missiles at Ukrainian cities and creating a de facto blockadethreatening any ship that tries to break it. New Ukrainian maritime drones respond stealthily hitting with explosives in Russian ports and ships. Through the air, NATO surveillance planes and drones fly over international waters, gathering intelligence that they transmit to kyiv for counterattacks. A very dangerous scenario that directly confronts Russia with three coastal NATO member countries: Romania, Bulgaria and Türkiye.

Image taken from video showing a Ukrainian marine drone approaching a Russian tanker in the Black Sea.  (AP)
Image taken from video showing a Ukrainian marine drone approaching a Russian tanker in the Black Sea. (AP) (Uncredited/)

The tension grew three weeks ago when Russia announced that it was suspending the agreement that allows grain to be exported from Ukraine to countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Both Russia and Ukraine are major producers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other low-cost foods on which many nations where famine is a growing threat depend. With the mediation of the United Nations and Turkey, this pact had been reached six months before to allow food to be exported.

“The Black Sea is now a conflict zone, a war zone as relevant to Russia and NATO as western Ukraine has been until now.”he wrote in the New York Times, Ivo Daalderdirector of Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “There is a danger that in the coming months it could become a new decisive war front by the time both contenders have to sit down at a negotiating table.”

Russia considers that the Black Sea is its natural projection towards the Mediterranean basin, the outlet for its hydrocarbons from the port of Novorossiysk, your bridgehead for Syria and the rest of the Middle East and its path of influence towards the Balkans, the strategic straits of the Bosphorus and the dardanelles controlled by Türkiye. From the port of Sevastopolin the Crimea occupied since 2014, operates with its base in Syria and its aspirations on Libya, Egypt, Cyprus and even Turkey, which has been a member of NATO since 1952.

black sea map ukraine
Infographic: Marcelo Regalado

The first big step was taken in 1783, when Catherine the Great annexed the Crimean peninsula., in Ottoman hands until then, and began to build a series of cities in the region. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union dominated the Black Sea, then known as “Russian lake”. The fall of the USSR and the expansion of NATO to Romania and Bulgaria, former members of the Soviet Warsaw Pact, brought greater Western interest to the Black Sea and reinforced the Turkish role in the region, especially as a platform towards Central Asia and the rich energy resources of the Caspian Sea, on the other side of the Caucasus.

Just hours after launching the full-scale invasion last year, Russian forces fired a missile that hit the commercial ship Yasa Jupiter, which flew the flag of the Marshall Islands. Two other civilian ships were hit in attacks on Ukrainian ports the next day. Since then, Moscow has occupied three major Ukrainian ports. Mariupol, Berdyansk and Genicheskundermined the waters to an enormous extent and imposed a de facto blockade on civilian shipping to and from all Ukrainian-controlled ports. Mariupol, which he conquered after months of heroic Ukrainian resistance, is that country’s great port on the Azov Sea.connected to the Negro through the Kerch Strait, which received more than 2,500 ships a year and moved 17 million tons of cargo.

By breaking the agreement for the export of grains, the Russian naval force attacked other smaller ports, but of importance for the departure of grains on the mouth of the Danube rivera few hundred meters from the territory of Romania. It was when the Ukrainian forces showed the letter that they had until then hidden from the maritime drones that attacked Russian ships on two consecutive days. And he announced that from that moment on six Russian ports were considered “war risk zones”. “We must defend our own coast starting with the enemy’s coast”had ironically said the commander of the Ukrainian navy, Rear Admiral Oleksiy Neizhpapa.

Silos in the port area of ​​the Ukrainian city of Odessa bombed by Russian missiles.  (Europa Press/Contact/Ukrainian Ground Forces)
Silos in the port area of ​​the Ukrainian city of Odessa bombed by Russian missiles. (Europa Press/Contact/Ukrainian Ground Forces) (Europa Press/Contact/Ukrainian /)

More than 3% of the oil and its derivatives produced on the planet circulate through the Black Sea. Historically, some 750,000 barrels of Russian crude, or 20% of its crude exports, leave the Black SeaAlthough the country has reduced those shipments to between 400,000 and 575,000 barrels a day, according to tanker-tracking companies, as Russia tries to support prices with its producing partner Saudi Arabia. david goldwyna former State Department official responsible for energy affairs, said in an interview with NBC that oil prices could rise by $10-15 a barrel if Russian exports from the Black Sea displace. Oil is now trading at around $85 a barrel, holding steady even after Ukraine attacked the Russian tanker last week.

Early in the war, Biden administration officials had expressed reservations about Ukraine attacking targets or carrying out sabotage inside Russia, including its Black Sea ports, fearing that such attacks would only increase tensions and exacerbate the reactions of Vladimir Putin. However, NATO planes permanently fly over the Black Sea collecting information on the movements of Russian forces that are passed on in real time to the Ukrainian command. In March, in the only known physical contact between the Russian and US militaries during this war, a Russian fighter jet slammed into a US surveillance drone, causing its operators to shoot it down in international waters.

Washington’s position has become more flexible in the last three months and this has helped the war front move towards the maritime zone of the Black Sea.. Now it will be necessary to see if it ends up supplying kyiv with the weapons that its naval forces do not have. That is likely to be determined if the counteroffensive launched in June finally pays off and Ukraine has a chance not only to defeat the Russians in Donbas but also to try to retake the strategic Crimean peninsula and with it, command of the exit. of the Black Sea.

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