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EDITORIAL

How to stop Putin’s attempt to blockade Ukraine’s grain

A multi-nation naval convoy is the best way to bring those agricultural products to market.

A train car with grain from Ukraine in Constanta, Romania, a port on the Black Sea, June 14. Constanta has provided a critical transit point for Ukrainian exports since the war with Russia began. With famine threatening millions, Europe is intent on finding alternatives to Ukraine, one of the world's biggest food exporters, whose landlocked crop is stranded by the war.CRISTIAN MOVILA/NYT

It’s a major war-created problem, not just for Ukraine but for the rest of the world too. Battling a brutal Russian invasion, Ukraine can’t get its agricultural products to market because Russian despot Vladimir Putin has his navy blockading that nation’s Black Sea ports.

An estimated 20-plus Russian naval vessels including submarines are currently situated in the Black Sea, impeding Ukraine’s seaborne commerce. Compounding that thuggery, Russia has mined the waters near Ukraine’s harbors; compounding that aquatic aggression, it has, according to Ukraine, deployed mines that drift on tides and current and so can end up almost anywhere. (A government that routinely lies about its military activities, the Kremlin claims that Ukrainian mines are the real problem.)

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That situation has left more than 20 millions tons of Ukrainian grain in limbo. Much of that is wheat and barley, but Ukraine also exports large amounts of sunflower seeds, sunflower oil, and canola oil, as well as millions of tons of corn. Given the importance of Ukraine’s agriculture to the world, its Russian-forced absence has created serious food shortages, particularly for African and Middle Eastern nations, which are Ukraine’s biggest customers. The supply crimp caused by Russia’s vicious Black Sea blockade is one reason world food prices have spiked.

Reports are also rife of Russian seizure and resale of Ukrainian agricultural products.

So what’s to be done? The Kremlin hopes to use the Black Sea blockade as a lever to force the West to drop economic sanctions that are crippling the Russian economy. That’s a nonstarter with the United States and its allies, however.

There has been an effort to transport some of Ukraine’s agricultural exports overland through Poland to ports on the Baltic Sea for shipping. But that’s a long and cumbersome workaround, and one with inadequate carrying capacity.

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A better idea has been offered by retired US admiral James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of the North American Treaty Organization: Provide naval escorts to protect commercial vessels willing to transport those imperiled agricultural products.

This initiative should be announced in advance, with the clear declaration that it is not a military action against Russia, but rather an international mission to ensure the safe passage of Ukrainian agricultural products. NATO’s minesweepers would first have to clear the Black Sea routes of mines, of course. The ships in the escort convoys would ideally be from an array of European nations. Some might have to be reflagged to meet legal strictures.

“This could be done under the auspices of the United Nations, by NATO or by a coalition of nations . . . ,” Stavridis wrote in a column for Bloomberg. “The most likely approach would be the latter, led by the US and probably including the UK and France, and perhaps Black Sea nations Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria.”

For such an international coalition to be as large as possible, Turkey would have to be aboard, since it has closed the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits to warships. That obviously wouldn’t affect Black Sea nations offering escort from Ukraine to those straits. Further, the United States is not a signatory to the international pact that gives Turkey that right. France and England are, however.

“While it is possible Turkey could interject opposition as a result of their control of the entrance to the Black Sea, it seems unlikely they would choose to do so given it is a humanitarian grain mission,” Stavridis wrote in an e-mail, responding the Globe editorial board.

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An obvious concern is that such as escort armada could provoke a Russian reaction, which could then elevate into a larger war.

But the risk there is small, in Stavridis’s estimation.

“I think it highly unlikely that Russia would attack a humanitarian convoy guarded by the United States Navy or NATO,” he e-mailed. “It would be terrible optics for them as this would be occurring in international waters,” which means that any retaliatory action by Russia would amount to “an act of piracy.”

Stavridis added: “Putin already has his hands full in this war ashore. To extend it to the sea would appear to me to be beyond his tolerance for risk.”

That judgment is bolstered by the assessment of another former top NATO official, Wesley Clark, the retired four-star general who was NATO’s supreme allied commander from 1997 to 2000.

In an interview with the editorial board, Clark said the best way to proceed would be with United Nations authorization. That would have to come through the General Assembly, since Russia and its ally China would veto any Security Council resolution authorizing such a mission.

If a United Nations resolution is unobtainable, then given the importance of Ukraine’s agriculture to feeding the world, the West should declare the naval escort a human-rights mission.

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“The Russians aren’t going to shoot at you,” Clark said. “That is a bridge too far for them.”

His prediction: Russia would simply sit back and watch.

But in the unlikely event that Russia did take action, “they are not going to take out the convoy,” he said. The worst that would occur, in Clark’s estimation, is that Russia “might fire a missile and try to scare you.”

In such a situation, the naval escorts would respond in limited fashion to the source of the hostile action without escalating the encounter into a larger naval war in the Black Sea.

Such an initiative obviously wouldn’t be completely risk free, but then little is in time of war. A multinational escort mission would help get vital Ukrainian agricultural projects to market — and without making concessions to a cynical despot willing to inflict suffering on the world as he goes about his brutal effort to rewrite the map of Eastern Europe.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.