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Military Tactics to Control the Supply Chain via Ports During Wartime: Not just for the history books

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Access to and control of ports have been integral objectives of wartime strategies for centuries.  Naval military blockades and port seizures/restrictions have been staple tactics to facilitate wartime supply lines and have dramatically altered the outcomes of wars.  In the past, historical evidence was used to illustrate the importance of port access, but the recent war between Ukraine and Russia exemplifies this importance in real time.

Naval superiority, specifically as it relates to ports, has historically been a key aspect of military strategy.  The Battle of New Orleans ended with the British being defeated at the port of New Orleans, signifying an epic American victory during the War of 1812.  Even during the American Civil War, which most consider a series of land battles, control over the ports was a key military strategy, as the Union blockade of Confederate ports in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico proved to be an effective economic and geopolitical maneuver that successfully squeezed off supply lines to the South, assuring eventual victory for the North.

During World War II, command of the sea was crucial, as the UK’s naval blockades were always considering how to outmaneuver and outflank German U-boats.  The Battle of Normandy was an Allied offensive centralized around a key fortification under German control that included the port at Cherbourg, where key supply chains were concentrated.  The critical Battle of Midway also involved port access in a key region in the Pacific front.  Both military centers of gravity offered safe harbor for vessels and important access to supply lines necessary for each region’s wartime goods.

Today, the Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrates how control of the military supply chain through control of ports is a crucial objective.  At the war’s onset, Russia’s initial military tactics were to march armored columns west along the Black Sea coast in hopes of achieving hegemony of Ukraine’s coastline and thus its ports and integral waterways.  Early in the war, the Russians captured the Ukrainian city of Lyman, a key transportation hub near the Siversky Donets River, where a massive Russian garrison was established (Iati et al., 2022).  Another early military goal was to seize Snake Island, off the coast of Ukraine in the Black Sea, in order to control airspace and establish a base for missile systems as well as seize grain ready for export.  This tactic was initially successful.  Russia’s hoped-for outcome was dominance over the Black Sea region’s ports that would give them management of necessary shipping containers and other cargo on large sea vessels that can haul heavy military equipment and valuable exports.  Throughout the first month of the war, Russia’s core strategic initiative was to invade and overtake these integral Ukrainian ports, where they could then set sea mines and patrols via warships, flanked by planes, and consolidate the region’s commercial shipping.

The Black Sea port of Odesa remains especially important in achieving regional naval supremacy as it has broad access to rail lines and a large cargo capacity.  The Russian Black Sea fleet attempted to take command of this port and use it as a hub to establish a military blockade.  However, Russia had a difficult time overtaking these ports as battles reached stalemates.  In March, it was announced that cargo was at a standstill due to the closure of operations at the Mariupol and Odesa ports (Tan, 2022).  Russia later expanded its naval operations to attempt to take complete control of the Ukrainian commercial ports of Berdyansk, Skadovsk, and Kherson (Polityuk and Birsel, 2022).  By June, two northeast Black Sea ports, Berdyansk and Mariupol, had been completely overtaken and seized, although Mariupol was so shelled by bombs that it was left mostly inoperable (Gatopoulos, 2022).

As in past wars, tactics involving port offensives have greatly affected the prices and availability of goods in the region and around the world.  Ukraine accounts for 9 percent of the world’s wheat, 15 percent of its maize, and 44 percent of global sunflower oil exports (Gatopoulos, 2022).  The Odesa and Mykolaiv ports are especially crucial because they facilitate over 80% of Ukraine’s grain exports (Gatopoulos, 2022).  Soon after the initial invasion, the war caused the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) food price index to skyrocket as it reached its highest ever point in March, “fueling a global food crisis” (Bankova et al., 2022, p. 1) characterized by high food prices and supply shortages.  The World Food Programme (Picheta et al., 2022) estimated that the war has shifted 47 million people to the acute hunger stage, and onlookers have “accused Russia of using food as a weapon during its invasion” (para. 8).

Seizing goods and cutting off commercial export markets in order to strangle an economy are common military tactics that have been undertaken yet again in this war.  Ukrainian grain has been an important market that Russia has attempted to penetrate.  Tens of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain were ready to be exported on vessels at the Black and Azov Sea ports when they were closed in May after finally being overtaken by the Russian military.

Subsequently, Ukraine has been forced to export any remaining grain via rail headed west on tracks that hadn’t yet been destroyed by the Russians.  Similarly, the Union army during the American Civil War wanted to keep Confederate cotton from being exported to Europe.  Humanitarian crises weren’t part of state or military considerations back then, but in June 2022 the United Nations intervened to pressure Russia into exporting grain across the European continent on behalf of world consumers (Lee, 2022).  Also in June, the Moscow Times reported that Russians were indeed exporting grain from the Ukrainian port city of Berdyansk to other countries, including a vessel carrying 7,000 tons of cereal, “ensuring the security” of the shipment and “heading toward friendly countries” (AFP, 2022).  However, reports of successfully exported grain have been refuted, because as of July 2022, 130 vessels with grain were still under dispute and queued in a backlog at these ports (Beaumont, 2022).

Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts have also been focused on port access.  For instance, France tried to negotiate safe travel to and from the port of Odesa, which was facing a Russian blockade, in efforts to allow grain to be efficiently distributed across the continent (Ukrinform.net, 2022).  After mounting pressure by state actors and international institutions such as the EU, on July 22, 2022, Russia agreed to a landmark grain deal allowing for the safe export of Ukrainian grain out of the port of Odesa, under the supervision of Turkey.  However, less than 24 hours later, Russia bombed the port, prompting EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell to frustratingly proclaim that the attack showed Russia’s “total disregard” for international law (Murphy, 2022, para. 6).

Global supply chain fallout from the Russia-Ukraine conflict has resulted in higher prices all across the continent and beyond.  The worldwide supply and prices of wheat and corn have been disrupted because Russia and Ukraine are responsible for 29% of wheat exports and 17% of corn exports.  In addition, Ukraine provides over 90% of semiconductor-grade neon for semiconductor chips, prompting global shortages.  Many have attributed the devaluation of the euro to the war; it now equals the value of the dollar for the first time in 20 years.

Sanctions imposed by international institutions have revolved around economic-related issues, often centralized at ports.  Ensuing EU sanctions banning Russian products and imports have been designed to punish the Russian economy based on the decision to wage war, but they have concurrently escalated supply chain disruptions that have spread across the continent.  Russia’s impactful Nord Stream energy pipeline has been central to these sanctions.  In addition, rail lines going in and out of ports are also key and therefore areas where the EU and individual countries have directed sanctions.  Lithuania, one of Ukraine’s allies, banned rail services to the strategic Russian territory of Kaliningrad, which relies on imported raw materials and houses the Russian Baltic fleet of vessels (Rosenberg, 2022).  Sanctions have also attempted to ban cargo and container deliveries to ports in Russia and Belarus (a long-time state supporter of Russia) (Mudulis, 2022) as well as banning Russian and Belarusian merchant fleets from entering EU ports.  This effort is an attempt to blockade the entire Russian fleet of more than 2,800 vessels (European Council, 2022).  As a result, other ports have seen unanticipated increases in cargo.  For instance, overall Latvian port throughput increased 15.2% from the year prior due to enhanced cargo needs for the war (Railfreight.com, 2022).  Belarus has been active in attempting to facilitate Russia’s supply chains, but the EU is attempting to freeze these shipments out of the pan-European economy.  In July, three Belarusian trains hauling $2.4 million of Russian cargo were seized in Ukraine (Pavlysh, 2022).

A major turning point in the war involved the Ukrainian counter-offensive to retake command of Snake Island in June, during which Ukraine was able to regain control over the Russian garrison, much to the shock of the world.  Russia subsequently labeled this development as a gesture of goodwill.  This turning point was considered crucial because Ukrainian wheat and grain could then be shipped from the Ukrainian Izmail and Reni ports along the Danube River through the Ukraine channel into new markets in Romania (Axe, 2022).  In the meantime, the fate of the massive amount of grain still under dispute at the port of Odesa remains to be seen.

Truly, control over supply chain lines, represented by naval superiority and control over the ports, has again proven itself to be a key facet of military strategy.  Supply chain management is vital to war efforts, and ports especially provide the lynchpins in these military strategies.  However, the fallout is not confined to the region where the ports are located.  Global economic shocks follow suit, as seen in the current economic upheaval in Europe and beyond.

AFP.  (2022, 30 June).  Russia Begins Shipping Grain From Occupied Ukraine Port.  Moscow Times.   Retrieved from: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/06/30/russia-begins-shipping-grain-from-occupied-ukraine-port-a78155

Axe, D.  (2022, 12 July).   First, Ukraine Liberated Snake Island: Now, it’s shipping grain from nearby ports.   Forbes.com.  Aerospace & Defense section.

Bankova, D., Dutta, P. & Ovaska, M.  (2022, 30 May).  Reuters.  Retrieved from:  https://graphics.reuters.com/UKRAINE-CRISIS/FOOD/zjvqkgomjvx/.

Beaumont, P.  (2022, 13 July).  More Than 130 Grain Ships Stuck in Black Sea as Talks Start in Istanbul.  The Guardian.  Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jul/13/more-than-130-grain-ships-stuck-in-black-sea-as-talks-start-in-istanbul-between-ukraine-and-russia-and-others.

European Council.  (2022).  How and When the EU Adopts Sanctions.  European Council and the Council of the EU.  Retrieved from: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/sanctions/restrictive-measures-against-russia-over-ukraine/sanctions-against-russia-explained/.

Gatopoulos, A.  (2022, 28 June).  The Battle for the Black Sea.  Aljazeera.  Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2022/6/28/how-russia-and-ukraine-are-vying-to-control-vital-grain-routes.

Iati, M., Duplain, J., Cheng, A., Bisset, V., & Jeong, A.  (2022, 28 May).  Russia Claims Capture of Key Ukrainian Transport Hub.  The Washington Post.  Russia-Ukraine-War-News-Live-Updates.

Lee, M.  (2022, 5 June).  US Skeptical UN-Russia Talks Will Free Trapped Ukrainian Grain.  Politico.  Agriculture Section.

Mudulis, E.  (2022, 3 July).  Russian Aggression in Ukraine has had a Damaging Impact on All Modes of Transport in the Baltic States to Different Degrees.  Eng.lsm: Official news portal of Latvian radio and Latvian television.

Murphy, M.  (2022, 23 July).  Ukraine War: Explosions rock Ukrainian port hours after grain deal.  BBC News.  World-Europe section.

Pavlysh, O.  (2022, 18 July).  Belarusian Locomotives Used for Transporting Provisions for the Russian Army Seized in Ukraine.  UkraineToday.com.  Retrieved from: https://ukrainetoday.org/2022/07/18/belarusian-locomotives-used-for-transporting-provisions-for-the-russian-army-seized-in-ukraine/.

Picheta, R., Karadsheh, J., Gigova, R., & Lister, T.  (2022, 23 July).  Kyiv and Moscow Agree Deal to Resume Ukraine Grain Exports from Black Sea Ports.  CNN.com.

Polityuk, P. & Birsel, R.  (2022, 2 May).  Ukraine Formally Closes Seaports Captured by Russia.  World-Europe.

Railfreight.com.  (2022, 21 July).  Latvia Sees Startling Increase in Transit Cargo from Central Asia.

Retrieved from:  https://www.railfreight.com/beltandroad/2022/07/21/latvia-sees-startling-increase-in-transit-cargo-from-central-asia/.

Rosenberg, S.  (2022, 21 June).  Kaliningrad: Russia warns Lithuania of consequences over rail transit sanctions.  BBC News.  World-Europe.

Ukrinform.net.  (2022, 6 June).  France Says Ready to Help Operation Allowing Odesa Port Access.  Retrieved from: https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/ukraine-conflict/1654882745-france-says-ready-to-help-operation-allowing-odessa-port-access.

Author: James J. Tanoos

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