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Russia to Treat Ukraine-Bound Ships and Their Flag States as Combatants

The product tanker Millennial Spirit burns in the northwestern Black Sea after a Russian strike, March 2022 (file image)
The product tanker Millennial Spirit burns in the northwestern Black Sea after a Russian strike, March 2022 (file image)

Published Jul 19, 2023 3:40 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Russian government has doubled down on its threat to create "temporarily dangerous" zones for shipping in the northwestern Black Sea. In a new announcement Wednesday, the Kremlin warned that it would effectively treat Ukraine-bound ships as arms carriers - and their flag states as parties to the war. 

"As of 00.00 Moscow time on 20 July, all ships proceeding in the waters of the Black Sea to Ukrainian ports will be considered as potential carriers of military cargoes," the Russian Ministry of Defense warned. "Countries of the flag of such ships will be considered to be involved in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of Kyiv regime."

The threat also specifies that areas of the southeastern Black Sea - where neutral shipping regularly transits to and from Ukraine's riverine ports - are also "temporarily dangerous." The effects on Ukrainian Danube River shipping are as yet unclear. 

Wednesday's threat is more specific than Moscow's previous warnings, and it aligns with Russian actions in the early weeks of the war. Shortly after the invasion, Russian forces struck more than half a dozen foreign merchant ships, killing one Bangladeshi seafarer and destroying one product tanker. Overnight Tuesday, Russia re-emphasized its willingness to use force against civilian shipping interests by striking grain terminals in Odesa, damaging the infrastructure required for Ukrainian food exports. 

Moscow withdrew from a negotiated ceasefire for grain shipping on Monday, drawing condemnation from the United Nations and the West. Ukraine held out hopes for continued cooperation with foreign-flag shipowners, even in the absence of a security arrangement; however, the Russian attack on the Port of Odesa and the direct threat against shipping would appear to reduce the odds of shipowner, insurer and flag state interest in the route. 

Russia's exit from the Black Sea Grain Initiative drew a measured response from the IMO, which refrained from blaming any parties for the outcome. "I deeply regret to learn of the disruption to the Black Sea Initiative. The unimpeded flow of shipping around the globe is of critical importance and central to the work of the IMO," said outgoing Secretary-General Kitack Lim in a statement Wednesday. "The movement of ships through the Black Sea Initiative and its impact in getting food to those who need it most, as well as stabilizing world food prices, is proof that shipping must always continue to move."