Moscow risks starting a direct war with NATO by intercepting ships in international waters and trying to impose economic control over Ukraine, warns the former supreme allied commander of NATO in Europe. He says that the fleets of NATO countries on the Black Sea – Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria – are superior to the Russian fleet.
Former US admiral James Stavridis, who led NATO’s alliance forces in Europe (SACEUR) from 2009 to 2013, told Politico that escalations at sea – including the boarding of a Turkish ship last Sunday – could force Kiev’s partners to step in to prevent the standoff economy of Ukraine.
“Russia’s actions in the international waters of the Black Sea create a real risk of this situation escalating to a war at sea between NATO and the Russian Federation,” James Stavridis said, according to the quoted source.
NATO “will not provide all the weapons and money for Ukraine, only to watch as Russia strangles their economy with an illegal blockade,” he added.
On Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that Russia fired warning shots before boarding the Sukru Okan, a Palau-flagged cargo ship that Ukraine’s foreign minister identified as Turkish.
Stavridis: “It is likely that NATO will respond”
The inspection took place in the southwestern Black Sea, off the coast of Turkey, one of NATO’s heavyweight members.
Stavridis criticized the Russians’ maneuver as “tantamount to piracy”, with the Kremlin making even greater efforts to undermine trade between Ukraine and the rest of Europe.
“If Russia starts confiscating ships or trying to intimidate them, I think it’s likely that NATO will respond by supporting a humanitarian shipping corridor,” Stavridis said. The alliance could protect ships going to and from the Ukrainian port of Odessa “with NATO fighter jets overhead and possibly NATO warships in escort.”
Tensions in the Black Sea have escalated dramatically since Russia unilaterally withdrew from the UN grain deal in July and warned that ships traveling to Ukrainian ports could be considered military targets. In response, Ukraine showed its willingness to target Russian energy exports with a maritime drone strike on an oil tanker and declared the waters around Russian Black Sea ports a “war-risk zone” as of August 23.
“The Russian fleet in the Black Sea would be outmatched”
Stavridis argued that support from NATO members bordering the Black Sea, namely Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria, would mean that “the Russian fleet in the Black Sea would be militarily outmatched”.
Turkey urged Russia to return to the grain deal, and the country’s National Security Council said tensions in the Black Sea were “not in anyone’s interest.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may meet with Vladimir Putin at the end of the month, and grain trade will likely be on the agenda, Politico writes.
Ukraine has established a “temporary corridor”
Following Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal, Moscow’s forces attacked Ukrainian grain warehouses along the Black Sea coast, destroying 60,000 tons of food. Russia has also repeatedly hit the Ukrainian Danube ports of Reni and Izmail, located just a few hundred meters from the border with NATO member Romania, with missile strikes that appear to target the grain trade.
Moscow’s Defense Ministry warned that “all ships sailing in the waters of the Black Sea to Ukrainian ports will be considered as potential carriers of military cargo.”
Despite this, Kiev has declared a “temporary corridor” for maritime traffic from its southern ports, allowing ships that have been confined to ports for weeks to enter international waters.
On Wednesday, Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov announced that the first ship, a Hong Kong-flagged container ship, had set sail, despite Moscow’s threat.
Editor: Bogdan Păcurar