Russia’s foothold on Snake Island, a smattering of land off the coast of Western Ukraine is bolstering its control of the Black Sea, preventing Ukrainian ships from delivering the country’s life-sustaining grain to Egypt, Algeria, Libya and others.
Snake Island is seen as central to Russia’s blockade of Odesa, a key Ukrainian port for the export of grain and other goods. It affords the hard pressed and shrinking Black Sea fleet an unsinkable if static maritime base on which to place electronic warfare and anti-ship capabilities.
These keep Ukrainian grain ships bottled up in Odesa and the foodstuffs they carry from ports in Africa and the Middle East, a loss for grain-importing nations exacerbated by the reduction in Russian grain exports resulting from sanctions and higher insurance costs for merchants. Ukrainian mining of its own ports for defensive purposes further complicates shipping activity.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week, Army General Christopher Cavoli (prospective head of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe) told senators that regional actors like Boko Haram and ISIS will seek to use food shortages to their advantage.
In 2020, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria were among the top importers of Ukrainian grain. Ironically, China took over the top spot as an importer from Ukraine which supplies 10 percent of the world’s grain exports. Absent Ukraine’s contribution, the smaller countries above are forced compete with China in global grain markets.
The Russian garrison on Snake Island is effectively attempting to replace the anti-aircraft capability that the country lost with the sinking of the Moskva while blocking Ukrainian maritime communications and reconnaissance around Odesa. Bottling up grain ships also denies Ukraine badly needed revenue which added up $5 billion 2021.
In Egypt, the world’s largest buyer of wheat (approximately 80% its wheat imports came from Russia and Ukraine in 2021 according to Reuters), soaring prices triggered price controls on bread in March. The escalation in food prices is seen by analysts as a risk to political stability throughout the region. Timothy Kaldas, a fellow at Cairo’s Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy reminded CNN that the 2011 Egyptian uprising “came after a decade of rising levels of poverty.”
Other countries like Lebanon (which imported 60% of its wheat from Ukraine) reported reserves sufficient for only one month. As of mid-May, The Economist reported that 26 countries had implemented “severe restrictions on food exports” putting tens of millions at risk of food insecurity.
Though some Ukrainian grain has reportedly filtered out through a Romanian Black Sea port, lifting the blockade would help groups of struggling nations as well as Ukraine itself. That means a push to reduce both Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and the garrison on Snake Island is a high priority.
On Thursday, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters that Russia’s naval presence and hold on Snake Island impel the Ukrainians’ need for coastal defense equipment, further potentially justifying American supplies of multiple launch rocket systems to the country.
The U.S.’ M270 and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) fire similar 227 mm rockets. (The M270 can fire up to 12 rockets, while the more mobile M142 can fire up to six.) They’ve been viewed as a boost to Ukrainian long-range fires on the battlefields of Donbas but the HIMARS system’s ability to hit targets as far away as 300 kilometers (186 miles) could allow Ukraine to fire at targets on Snake Islands from its own southern shoreline.
They might even be employed to hit Russian auxiliary vessels making the 150-mile run from Sevastopol to Snake Island which must tie up at the pier to offload supplies. Earlier this month, Ukrainian forces used a TB-2 Bayraktar drone to sink a Russian landing craft while stationary at the island, suggesting an ISR drone/HIMARS combination could expand capability to cutoff resupply and the Russian garrison.
Doing so might allow a modicum of Ukrainian grain to ship again, possibly preventing a measure of hunger and instability across the Mediterranean.