About 25 million tons of grain now sit in Ukrainian silos blockaded by Russian ships. By disrupting global food and energy supplies, the Kremlin seeks to spark multiple international crises, forcing the West to pressure Ukraine into negotiations. The US should spoil Russia’s strategy by establishing a maritime corridor with a naval coalition of the willing to ensure Ukrainian grain can reach foreign ports. That would alleviate the global food crisis while undermining a key element of Russian leverage over Ukraine and its allies.
From his initial military buildup, Vladimir Putin has aimed to shock Kyiv and the West into submission without having to martial the forces necessary to conquer Ukraine outright. Moscow has pushed to achieve objectives that aren’t geostrategic in the usual sense of allowing Russian forces an easier military victory, but that instead could put pressure on Ukraine’s allies to back off and force President Volodymyr Zelensky to capitulate.
Mr. Putin’s yearlong force buildup was intended to convince the West that a quick Russian victory was inevitable. Russia’s initial offensive—a multi-axis push after a countrywide missile barrage—was supposed to convince the West that supporting Ukraine was fruitless. Russia’s Donbas offensive, now targeting a small pocket around Severodonetsk, is designed to convince the West of much the same—that Ukraine has no chance, even with greater military aid, and must negotiate or be devoured by the Russian bear.
The situation on the ground contradicts the Kremlin’s narrative. Both Ukraine and Russia have taken brutal losses, but the former now has 700,000 men under arms and aims to have one million soldiers by 2023. Ukraine requires equipment, but it has held its own even without significant heavy weapons, bloodying the Russian Donbas offensive, pushing back around Kharkiv, counterattacking near Kherson, and denying Moscow a decisive breakthrough. Over time, Russia will run short of men, shells and cannon.
The Kremlin has publicly implied that Russia is willing to fight a long war. But Russia lacks the combat power to conquer Ukraine or to interdict Western arms shipments. Instead, Mr. Putin is betting that the US and Ukraine’s European allies will break before Russia has to. Given the scale and publicity of Western support, Ukrainian morale and combat performance are so deeply intertwined with their allies’ commitment that a shift in Western policy could destroy Kyiv’s will to resist.
The war’s disruption of the global economy has allowed Russia to apply additional pressure on the West and bring in new funds. Oil and gas price hikes have created a lucrative side market for the Kremlin’s petrochemicals in India and China, while Europe still grudgingly consumes Russian gas out of necessity.
Russian disruption of Ukrainian food exports does something similar. Ukraine is a leading producer of most traded foodstuffs, particularly wheat and vegetable oils. Russia has blocked virtually all Ukrainian exports by mining the Black Sea and deploying a significant naval force there, along with its occupation of the Ukrainian port cities Mariupol, Berdyansk and Kherson. Millions of tons of grain remain trapped in Odessa. Only a small proportion of Ukrainian foodstuffs are leaving the country, almost exclusively by rail, traveling to Romanian and Bulgarian ports. But Ukraine uses the Russian railway gauge, and those nations don’t, requiring either the modification of Ukrainian railcars or time-consuming unloading and reloading of goods.
Russia’s goal is partly to put economic pressure on the West. By driving up energy and food prices, the Kremlin can intensify inflation in Europe and North America. This could force Western governments to push Kyiv for concessions or strike a deal with Moscow that unlocks Ukrainian grain in return for sanctions relief.
The Kremlin’s aims go beyond price instability; the Russian blockade could also create foreign-policy crises for the US and Europe across the world. Moscow learned the lesson of Covid-19: Global shocks can prompt extreme, unexpected political results. The pandemic derailed international supply chains and transformed economic and energy-consumption patterns. It still has an effect on commerce—China is imposing lockdowns well over two years into the pandemic and is unlikely to allow foreigners into the country until 2023.
By disrupting food and energy supplies, the Kremlin seeks to create global confusion and thereby provoke instability and crises. Sri Lanka is the proverbial canary in the coal mine: The country has defaulted on its debt, and unrest is widespread over inflation. Lebanon is in dire straits but unlikely to receive international financial support because of Hezbollah’s penetration of its government. The Middle East and Africa, even before Russia invaded Ukraine, were in an accelerating inflationary spiral. The Ukraine war has exacerbated this cycle. Food price hikes have begun in Latin America, and broader inflation and economic instability are likely.
A series of regional crises will increase pressure on the West to end the war. Significant African migrant flows, driven by dire economic conditions, will bolster the Russophilic European far right. A migrant wave in the Americas will divide the Biden administration’s focus. State collapse—say, in Lebanon—will trigger regional confrontation, diverting Western attention.
With all this, Russia hopes to break the West’s will.
The obvious solution is to free up Ukrainian grain exports, relieving pressure on the global food supply and mitigating inflation. This would require an extensive demining and escort mission to create a corridor from Odessa to the eastern Mediterranean. It would demand a naval force large enough to deter Russian interruption.
An escort mission worked in similar circumstances during the Iran-Iraq war under Operation Earnest Will. Iran and Iraq, like Russia and Ukraine, had settled into a long-term fight. Iraq lost its port access after Iranian offensives. It turned to Kuwait to export Iraqi oil, but Iran attacked Kuwaiti ships. The US responded by deploying a major naval task force to escort Kuwaiti oil tankers and conducting a handful of demonstrations of military power to deter continued Iranian pressure.
In the case of Ukraine, American deployment must be more aggressive. A nuclear-armed Russia, with clear incentives to deter greater US participation in the war, may attack escorting warships. Washington can head off this possibility by employing an overwhelming naval task force consisting of small and large surface combatants with submarine and air support. Russia would be loath to intervene.
The US shouldn’t conduct this mission through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. France, Italy and Germany likely would veto it. America should instead act with an ad hoc coalition—likely Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and possibly the Baltic States, Sweden and Finland—to mitigate NATO divisions.
Turkey need not participate actively. But it must allow this coalition force to operate in the Black Sea. It is therefore imperative that the Biden administration gain Turkish consent. Ideally Washington would offer to allow Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program and purchase of F-16s, the greatest point of tension between the US and Turkey and the best, low-cost way to ensure Turkish acquiescence.
It might seem safer not to intervene, but the widespread crises Moscow aims to provoke would be far more dangerous. American and allied warships can disrupt Moscow’s strategy without firing a shot.
Mr. Cropsey is founder and president of the Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday” and “Seablindness.”
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