The head of the world’s largest ship manager has urged Nato to provide naval escorts for commercial vessels passing through the Black Sea, which lies off Ukraine’s southern coast, as dozens remain stuck in the conflict zone.
René Kofod-Olsen, chief executive of V.Group, said the western military alliance should intervene to ensure trade can flow from a region of vital importance for global food supplies.
“We should demand that our seafaring and marine traffic is being protected in international waters. I’m sure Nato and others have a role to play in the protection of the commercial fleet,” he said.
V.Group offers services, operational management and maintenance to shipowners around the world, supplying them with its pool of more than 46,000 seafarers.
The war in Ukraine has rendered the northern third of the Black Sea unsafe for navigation, in effect barring access to the country’s coastline as ships and seafarers face threats from mines and projectiles.
The flow of grains and fertilisers out of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov are of huge importance to international food supplies, affecting the business of the big agricultural commodity traders Cargill, Bunge, ADM and Louis Dreyfus as well as the food companies they supply.
Grain exports by Russia and Ukraine, which account for about 30 per cent of global wheat trade, have more than halved in March and April to date year-on-year, according to shipping data group Sea/ by Maritech, as the war takes its toll.
Eighty-four vessels manned by about 500 seafarers are also still stuck off the coast of Ukraine, while at least 10 have been damaged by projectiles or mines, according to the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO).
However, Nato said it is not considering a naval mission to escort Black Sea ships as countries are wary of being dragged into potential conflict with Russia.
“Russia’s naval presence in the Black Sea has disrupted maritime commerce even before its invasion of Ukraine,” Nato said in response to Kofod-Olsen’s call.
“Nato is not considering a naval mission to escort ships in the Black Sea, but Nato allies that have coastal borders — Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey — have deployed ships to find and neutralise any mines that may be in the area.”
Any naval mission conducted under a Nato flag by allied ships would require the support of all 30 alliance members.
Previously agreed Nato naval missions have included counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa to protect international shipping and anti-terror operations in the Mediterranean.
Kofod-Olsen said: “If you look at any other place where there has been any other regional conflict of size and international waters have been impacted, then you would find a situation where you would rely on some form of escorts.”
His plea for escorts comes as negotiations at the IMO on the introduction of a “blue maritime corridor” cleared of mines for the safe passage of merchant ships have hit a deadlock.
Russia says it has established a safe corridor in international waters, but mines in Ukrainian territorial waters were preventing stuck vessels from leaving.
Ukraine insists that minesweeping can only take place if there is a ceasefire and withdrawal of Russian naval vessels followed by a period of stability.
Security officials fear that setting up a maritime corridor would create a route for Russian military vessels into Ukraine.
A shipping company executive with a vessel stuck in the region said any solution would be protracted, most likely requiring a ceasefire between Ukraine and Russia and the involvement of the UN rather than Nato.