The Kremlin might be spinning Russia’s withdrawal from Snake Island — a tiny piece of land off the Bessarabian coast that rose to international prominence through the defiance of its Ukrainian garrison in the early hours of the war — as an act of “good will.” In reality, the forced retreat after a successful Ukrainian bombing campaign is a major defeat for Vladimir Putin.
With Western help, it could be a turning point in the war’s perhaps most significant theater: the Black Sea.
The Black Sea matters not just to Ukraine and its neighbors. The blockade of Odessa, Ukraine’s premier port, and the mining of the surrounding waters has stopped Ukrainian grain exports from reaching their destinations — many of them in the developing world. Ukraine is the world’s fourth largest exporter of wheat, with some 30 million tons sitting in storage — or getting stolen by Russian occupiers.
Starving them out
To the people in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, this is quite literally a matter of life or death. Almost two-thirds of the population of Sierra Leone are experiencing food insecurity, and over 30% of its children are malnourished. South Sudan, meanwhile, is already headed into a food crisis affecting 70% of its population, possibly more dramatic than the famine of 2017.
Exacerbating these developments, of course, is the entire point. In an eerie parallel to the Holodomor organized by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s to crush the Ukrainian nation, Putin is hoping to orchestrate a famine in the developing world. He aims to create a refugee crisis that will destabilize Europe and eventually break Western resolve in its support for Ukraine. With high energy prices and uncontrolled migration of desperate people across the Mediterranean, the stage would set for disruptive political forces on the far left and the far right to make electoral gains and to press mainstream leaders into appeasing the Kremlin.
Allowing that to happen would be horrific. Fortunately, there are solutions. First and foremost, as the sinking of the Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship, Moskva, illustrates, Ukrainians are perfectly capable of pushing back themselves if provided with the right equipment. Moskva was hit by a Ukrainian-made Neptune missile. With US intelligence and with higher-precision and longer-distance missiles, such as Danish Harpoons, Ukraine would be in a position to significantly cripple if not destroy the entire Black Sea Fleet.
The hesitancy to provide Ukrainians with such tools is completely misplaced. If anything, an even bolder step might be needed to end the blockage. A US-led naval coalition should assist with the demining of Odessa and escorting Ukrainian grain shipments out of Ukrainian ports. The United States undertook a similar task in the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, when the US Navy accompanied Kuwaiti tankers out of the Persian Gulf, effectively deterring Iran from attacking.
The time is now
This would be, mind you, a fundamentally different operation from the idea of a no-fly zone, which was floated earlier in the conflict. Enforcing a no-fly zone would require the United States and its partners to actively shoot down Russian planes defying the restrictions and possibly attacking targets within Russia, thus directly escalating the conflict with a nuclear power.
A naval-escort mission, in contrast, would require Russia to attack first — something that the Kremlin would think about twice, particularly if the coalition force were large enough.
Time to act is now. Contrary to popular imagination, experience shows time and again that Putin on the defensive is no more dangerous than Putin who is being emboldened by our weakness and indecision — quite the contrary. Refusing to seize this opportunity does a disservice not only to the cause of Ukrainian freedom and national self-determination but also to tens of millions of vulnerable people in least well-off countries on the planet as well as to our own and our allies’ democracies which will have to endure a migratory shock that may back the 2015 refugee crisis look small in comparison.
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.