Ship part

Admiral Stavridis calls for convoys of ships in the Black Sea

by Admiral James Stavridis (Bloomberg review) When I was an operations officer on an Aegis guided-missile destroyer in the late 1980s, we were assigned a mission in the Persian Gulf. The Iranians, in the midst of the so-called tanker war with Iraq, were trying to close the vital Strait of Hormuz.

The rest of the world needed to keep the oil flowing and chose a rather dramatic solution: escort convoys of US-flagged tankers in and out of the tight waterway. Called Serious Will Operationit was mostly successful, running from the hot summer of 1987 to the fall of 1988.

(Certainly there was a great tragedy at that time, the tear down of an Iranian airliner with 290 people killed.)

Serious will

Earnest Will spilled the oil and took away the influence of the Iranians. My cruiser, the Valley Forge, was successfully deployed and the mission had a significant impact on global geopolitics and energy supply.

As the world faces food shortages due to Russia’s illegal blockade of Ukraine, the United States and its allies should consider a similar response.

Ukraine provides a significant share of the world’s wheat (about 7% of world exports), sunflower oil and other essential agricultural products. Russia’s actions are not only illegal under international law, but could well cause famine in the Middle East and North Africa – already volatile hotspots.

Russian Anaconda blueprint

Russian President Vladimir Putin has maritime control of the northern Black Sea because his fleet, with more than two dozen major combat ships, is by far the strongest in the region. With 25,000 sailors and around 40 surface warships and seven submarines, the fleet is formidable even after the loss of its huge Slava-class flagship, the Moskva, to a Ukrainian cruise missile strike in April.

Related book: Risking It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision by Admiral James Stavridis

While North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria have capable forces in the Black Sea, Ukraine has virtually no navy left to challenge the Russian blockade. Russian forces are deployed along its coasts and are able to stifle the economy, with the side effect of preventing agricultural products from reaching the markets they are intended for.

Moscow uses a strategy reminiscent of that employed by the Union army against the agrarian South during the American Civil War. Called the Anaconda plan, after the snake that chokes its victims to death, the maritime part deprives the Confederacy of hard currency by preventing the export of cotton. Several European countries have challenged the maritime blockade, to no avail.

Putin takes a page out of Lincoln’s playbook, and it has an effect. The Russians have now offered negotiations to allow the shipment of grain in exchange for lifting Western sanctions, which the United States and its allies will not accept.

Merchant Ship Escorts

Which brings us to the idea of ​​breaking the blockade by escorting merchant ships. The first challenge is the most obvious: who will do the escort? This could be done under the auspices of the United Nations, by NATO, or by a coalition of nations ready to undertake what will be a provocative and dangerous mission.

The most likely approach would be the latter, led by the US and likely including the UK and France, and possibly the Black Sea countries Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria.

NATO mine clearance

A second challenge will be mine clearance, as the Ukrainians and Russians have used them to try to control the seas along the Ukrainian coast. NATO has a standing force of minesweepers precisely for this purpose. This flotilla operates under the command of one of my successors as Supreme Allied Commander, General Tod Wolters.

Third, blockading nations should work with major shipping nations and international merchants who transport and own grain and other commodities. This could be organized by the International Maritime Organization, headquartered in London. As part of the UN, the IMO played a similar role in organizing international responses to piracy off the coast of Africa when I was commander of NATO.

Change of flag for merchant ships

It will also likely require some of the merchant ships to be reflagged to the nationality of the countries participating in the operation, as the United States has done in the Gulf.

Related book: The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran by David Crist

Finally, there is the task of briefing Russia on the plan and making sure it understands that the coalition conducting the operation will not tolerate any interference – but also has no desire to enter combat with the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Moscow will probably brag, but the idea of ​​it attacking NATO warships in international waters is weak. If, against all odds, the Russians did something stupid, it would be met with a commensurate use of force.

We have reached a crucial point: grain shipments are cut, the Ukrainian economy is devastated and the coming food crisis must be avoided. Democratic allies should explore an Operation Earnest Will-type approach. Simply allowing Putin to fend for himself on the high seas cannot continue.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy Admiral and former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, and Dean Emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operational executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of advisors at McLarty Associates.

Related book: Risking It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision by Admiral James Stavridis