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About those Ukrainian ton miles

We have a wheat problem. Or a Black Sea problem. At all events, a shipping problem. In a few weeks, the Ukrainian grain harvest for 2022 is going to be harvested, shell holes and unexploded ordnance notwithstanding, and is going to go – where? The silos and elevators of Ukraine are full of the un-exported 2021 harvest. And if nothing is done an awful lot of people elsewhere in the world, but most particularly in the Muslim world, which eats a lot of bread baked with Ukrainian wheat, are not going to get any.

The logistics of this predicament look a bit like this: The ports of Ukraine are closed, and Russia is blockading them with its Black Sea fleet. Yes, wheat can move on rail, but Ukrainian railways are Russian gauge, whilst the railways of Poland and Romania are standard gauge, and as every schoolboy knows Romania’s huge railway system has been starved of investment for years, so the very simple idea of moving Ukrainian wheat to Constanza isn’t going to work. The same goes for moving all that grain to the Baltic (“but think of the ton miles!”) via the Polish railway system. The only way to move that grain is the way it has always been moved, in the holds of cross trading bulk carriers.

This is one of those moments when merchant shipping acquires a political dimension.

Just possibly, Ukraine and Russia will sign a peace treaty in the next month or so. This is Plan A. Just possibly, pigs might fly.

This is one of those moments when merchant shipping acquires a political dimension

The other options are persuading Russia to permit neutral shipping to call at Ukrainian ports, which we will call Plan B, or destroying the Russian Black Sea Fleet, (Plan C) or letting an awful lot of people go hungry (“but think of the ton miles!”).

The most attractive solution might involve Russia allowing ships owned and controlled by nations who are well disposed towards Russia to load grain in Ukrainian ports. This, which we will call Plan B Plus, is not an inherently silly idea; it gives Russia a practical way to reward nations that have abstained from voting on United Nations resolutions condemning Russia or imposing sanctions, whilst at the same time it makes Russia look good, or at least look a bit better. I commend this idea to the many rather bright people in the Russian Foreign Office, and to nations enjoying unbounded friendship with Russia.

Shipowners in other nations which are not friendly with Russia will benefit indirectly from other ships being absorbed by the Ukrainian grain harvest and since only ships acceptable to Russia will be permitted to load at and sail from Ukrainian ports those ships will have to ballast into position which means, of course, lots of lovely ton miles all round. I don’t see much wrong with this plan; it is the wheat equivalent of Russian gas to Germany…

The option which will commend itself most to Ukraine is probably the next one – destroy the Russian Black Sea Fleet, or at any rate confine its ships to Sevastopol where their tame dolphins can protect them and blast their missiles out of the air. This – let us call this Plan C – might work, too, if Ukraine gets and makes enough anti-ship missiles. As I think we all know, the Montreux Convention permits Turkey to close the straits to warships other than those based in the Black Sea in the event of war and Turkey has stated that it is now doing exactly that, even though Russia says that it is not fighting a war, which means that the fantasists in Britain and elsewhere who want to send warships into the Black Sea to convoy neutral bulk carriers in the manner used for tankers during the Various Late Unpleasantnesses in the Arabian Gulf need to grow up a bit.

Ukraine is making and importing anti-ship missiles just as fast as it can, whilst bombing Snake Island, which plays the part of an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the northwestern Black Sea, and more particularly any anti-aircraft and anti-missile installations placed on Snake Island by Russia, as heavily and as often as it can be done.

There is evidently scope to use the threat of Plan C to persuade Russia to support Plan B Plus.

What’s wrong with this idea?

Andrew Craig-Bennett

Andrew Craig-Bennett works for a well known Asian shipowner. Previous employers include Wallem, China Navigation, Charles Taylor Consulting and Swire Pacific Offshore. Andrew was also a columnist for Lloyd's List for a decade.


  1. Don’t discount the rail option! Remember wheat and other products from the US and Canada were sent to Russia when the harvest failed there in the 1970s. Grain was moved in open top rail cars and ways were found to maximise the tonnages moved. The difference in rail gauge is a problem but bogie wheel sets can be changed at border crossing points. moving grain in containers may seem an odd option but is feasible (witness the amounts going into China from the US in this type of kit)

    Ironically a plan for a wide gauge route to Vienna has recently been scrubbed.

    The rail authorities in Romania and Ukraine need to get a move on and drive up their asset productivity. Ditto the ports and silo operators.

  2. Hi, Andrew asked me to paste here a message I sent him privately about this article. I’m an American reporter working in Ukraine.

    I think Ukraine would go for the idea of some form of grain export corridor in general but it would not give up its right to shoot at Russian warships, under any circumstances, and that might be a deal-breaker for neutral shipping.

    I doubt the Russians would go for this without western concessions, and they aren’t going to get concessions for stopping what amounts to acts of piracy.

    Also, the claim that NATO escort of grain ships is not possible is really simplistic. No, NATO warships can’t do that because of the Montreux Convention. Yes NATO air forces can do that, and arguably, they can deny/enforce a control zone over areas of the Black Sea far more efficiently than warships could. Airpower has come a long way since the Montreux Convention was signed.

    I have the vague, and as-yet not confirmed seriously impression that the West’s current strategy with Russia is to escalate Ukraine’s military capacity incrementally, which gives the Ukrainians time to incorporate the new systems and the Russians time to decide whether further confrontation with an opponent who is only going to get stronger, is a smart idea. On the naval/maritime front, although Ukraine has some cruise missiles there is a big difference from that, and say Ukraine with a lot of naval cruise missiles, or Ukraine with an effective naval air capacity, or Ukraine with lots of sea mines, or Ukraine with a functional submarine, etc. etc.

    Given all that potential escalation in future, and a general expectation that the summer will either demonstrate Russia can hold onto its gains or the Ukrainians can start taking them back, I have the feeling that the major states are going be agreeable to wait and let people starve in Africa, rather than get the Ukrainian grain moving.

  3. G’day Andrew:
    You may remember me from your days at Messrs. Charles Taylor where you managed claims for my little fleet. I certainly remember you (fondly) and especially the dinner we shared in the NY Yacht Club Model Room the night after Jimmy Conner failed to cover and we lost the cup to the Australians. The Club was empty but for an elderly couple whose conversation went something like this: Husband: “I hear we lost the cup”. Wife: “Yes to the Australians – where is Australia”. Husband: “I think it is somewhere by the Philippines.” I see you are currently somewhere near the Philippines!

    I read your insightful article which is favorably discussed at length on a US web site “What the Ship”. For my part I am retired but still am involved with the cabotage trade principally to Hawaii. I divide my time between Sailfish Point, Stuart FL and Park City Utah. If you visit the US I would be delighted to entertain you in those venues.

    I remember you as a connoisseur of small boats; I recently imported from Finland, a Sargo 33, which you would love to experience should you every wash up on the Florida shore.

    Best regards/John Love

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