Ukraine's Hard-Won Grain Corridor May Shut Without More U.S. Support

Grain export bulker in Ukraine

Published Feb 27, 2024 8:34 PM by The Maritime Executive


Despite Ukraine's success in striking back against the Russian Navy, the progress it has made in securing the western Black Sea could be reversed if the United States does not provide more arms soon, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in a new interview. 

Ukraine's maritime trade has gone through severe ups and downs since the start of the Russian invasion two years ago. In the first months of the war, a Russian naval blockade shut down all merchant traffic to Ukraine's busy Black Sea ports, which historically handled the vast majority of the country's grain exports. Over the summer of 2022, the UN and Turkey negotiated a deal with Russia to partially lift that blockade, but only for approved ships, and only for grain export cargoes. 

Russia abandoned this Black Sea grain deal in July 2023, suspended its security guarantees, and attacked Ukrainian grain terminals with long-range missiles and drones. Undeterred, Ukraine hit back at the Russian Navy with a wave of missile and suicide drone attacks, destroying or sinking multiple vessels in a matter of months. 

This defense strategy has effectively forced the Russian surface fleet out of the western reaches of the Black Sea, according to UK intelligence. In September 2023, with war risk reduced by Ukraine's defenses, bulkers returned to Odesa to load grain - this time, without Russia's permission. 

This unilateral security corridor has allowed Ukraine to export about 30 million tonnes of grain so far, and exporters should be able to ship the entirety of the 2023 crop - a sea change from the situation in 2022. But the corridor depends upon deterring the Russian threat to commercial shipping, and that requires a regular flow of Western armament. 

After two years of funding Ukraine's defense, the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives is blocking a $60 billion aid package for Kyiv, aligning with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. The interruption in funding is already affecting the front lines in Ukraine, and in an interview with CNN, Zelensky said that the maritime corridor will also be at risk if aid is not restored soon. 

"I think the route will be closed," he said. "To defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems."