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A Russian Lake: Has the West ceded the Black Sea to Russia?

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The Black Sea, once touted as a contested maritime space, now stands as a stark example of Russian dominance, epitomized by the boarding of the Palau-flagged freighter Şükrü Okan in 2023.This incident, emblematic of Russia's tightening grip over the region, underscores a concerning suffocation of freedom of navigation, signalling a de facto blockade.

Despite Ukraine's commendable efforts at sea denial, Russia continues to advance its strategic objectives, controlling the Sea of Azov and imposing a pervasive sense of maritime insecurity. While not explicitly labeled a blockade, Russia's actions effectively curtail shipping routes, intimidating vessels approaching Ukrainian waters.

Legally dubious yet undeniably effective, Russia's maneuvers in the Black Sea challenge the principles of international maritime law, particularly UNCLOS. Despite legal violations, the international community's tepid response risks legitimizing Russia's control and undermining UNCLOS's authority.

The collapse of the Black Sea Grain Initiative further complicates matters, with Ukraine resorting to alternative export routes. However, these endeavors pale in comparison to pre-war volumes, raising questions about the sustainability of such initiatives amidst heightened risks.

Several key lessons emerge from this predicament. Firstly, sea denial proves inadequate when economic livelihood hinges on open sea-lanes. Secondly, reliance on flags of convenience offers little protection against maritime aggression, necessitating a reassessment of flag choices. Thirdly, the definition of blockade evolves, with minimal enforcement proving effective in deterring shipping activity.

Practical solutions range from enhancing maritime domain awareness to subsidizing war risk costs for shipping operators. Additionally, navies conducting freedom of navigation operations can challenge Russian dominance, upholding the principles of free trade and sovereign access to international waters.

While concerns about escalation loom large, principles of freedom of navigation and sea power compel action. Navies must be willing to safeguard open sea-lanes, preventing undue control by aggressive actors like Russia. Ultimately, the Black Sea's fate hinges on the world's commitment to upholding maritime norms and resisting encroachment on international waters.


Metis Insights: Black Sea Grain Initiative


Source: CIMSEC