Moscow’s threat to blockade the Black Sea and stop commercial ships from sailing to Ukrainian ports appears to have been all bluff and no action, after three vessels completed the journey unhindered over the weekend.
What’s more, flight tracking data shows NATO warplanes patrolling the sea, backing up the military alliance’s commitment to keep grain flowing despite the Kremlin’s bluster.
Remind me, what’s going on in the Black Sea?
Last month, Russia scuppered a deal that allowed Ukraine to export grain through the Black Sea, pushing up global prices and depriving 400 million people worldwide of badly needed grain.
Moscow’s full-scale invasion last year saw Ukraine’s Black Sea ports blocked by warships until the agreement – brokered by the UN and Turkey and signed in July 2022 – allowed for the passage of critical grain shipments from the Ukrainian port of Odesa.
Upping the ante significantly, Russia also announced it would consider ships travelling to Ukraine through the waterway potential military and unilaterally banned traffic on the northwestern and southeastern parts of the sea.
It said flag countries of vessels sailing to Ukraine will be considered as on Kyiv’s side, meaning that purely on the grounds of suspicion, Russia said it was willing to stop and search, and potentially even blow the commercial trawlers flagged by countries such as China, India, Turkey, Egypt, Panama, and Greece out of the water.
To show just how serious they were, Moscow’s Navy then conducted a live fire "exercise" in the northwest Black Sea where they practiced blowing up a vessel with anti-ship cruise missiles.
Sounds serious – have they backed up their threats?
It appears not. As pointed out by OSINT investigator Markus Jonsson, on the night of July 29/30, three ships sailed from Israel, Greece, and Turkey/Georgia to Ukrainian ports.
None of the three ships made any attempt to hide their identity of their destination.
During night 3 civilian ships seem to have successfully challenged Russian threats to Black Sea navigation.— Markus Jonsson (@auonsson) July 30, 2023
Ams1, Sahin 2 & Yilmaz Kaptan sailed direct routes, openly advertising destination Ukraine over AIS.
Their origins: Israel, Greece and Turkey/Georgia. pic.twitter.com/xI7lJoPIQS
Jonsson added: “The origins are interesting in that they are all potential sources of weapons. Yet, these ships seem to navigate freely over Black Sea, in contempt of the alleged threat that Russia will treat any ship, civilian or not, heading for Ukraine as potential targets.”
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War noted the development, saying it appeared to show that Russian forces were “unwilling or unable to forcibly stop and search neutral vessels headed to Ukraine through the Black Sea despite ostensibly setting conditions to do so.”
Do we know why Russia didn’t stop the ships?
Not for certain but we do know that at the time they were sailing to Ukraine, four NATO aircraft were patrolling overhead.
🇺🇸Boeing P-8A Poseidon— 360°Radar (@wipljw) July 30, 2023
NATO Boeing E-3A Sentry
🇺🇸Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk FORTE12
🇺🇸CL650 ARTEMIS BRIO pic.twitter.com/EtROrtsDx4
Last week NATO made its feelings about Russia’s so-called blockade very clear, saying it “created new risks for miscalculation and escalation.”
“Russia bears full responsibility for its dangerous and escalatory actions in the Black Sea region," NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said.
“Russia's actions also pose substantial risks to the stability of the Black Sea region, which is of strategic importance to NATO. Allies are stepping up support to Ukraine and increasing our vigilance.”
Is Russia doing anything at all?
Russia has taken some actions linked to the declaration of the blockade. Last week its FSB security service said it had found “traces of explosives” on a cargo ship bound for the Russian port of Rostov-on-Don through the Black Sea.
The FSB said that the ship coming from Turkey had previously sailed to the Ukrainian port of Reni and said it had now been turned back from Russian waters.
“The foreign ship may have been used earlier to transport explosive substances to Ukraine,” the FSB statement said.
“A decision was taken to prevent the ship's passage under the shipping arch of the Kerch Strait and it has been turned back from Russian territorial waters,” it added.
But Moscow does – at least for the moment – appear unwilling to stop ships as they head to Ukrainian ports.
Anything else I need to know?
In the latest Black Sea development, Russia said on Tuesday it had repelled an overnight drone attack targeting its patrol boats in the Black Sea.
“Three naval enemy drones were destroyed,” Russia's defence ministry said in a statement, adding that the boats were attacked 340 kilometres (210 miles) southwest of Sevastopol, the base of Russia's Black Sea fleet on the annexed Crimea peninsula.
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