By Altaf Moti
The Black Sea region is one of the most important grain-producing and trading areas in the world accounting for about 30% of global wheat exports and 15% of global corn exports. Ukraine and Russia are among the top wheat exporters in the world, with Ukraine being the fourth-largest and Russia being the first-largest in 2022. Both countries rely heavily on the Black Sea route to transport their grains to international markets especially in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
However, this vital source of food and income for both countries and the world has been threatened by a new crisis that erupted in 2023 when Russia exited a deal that limited its grain exports and imposed an embargo on Ukraine, accusing it of using food as a weapon . This move caused a spike in global food prices and raised concerns about food security in many regions. It also triggered a humanitarian crisis in some regions, as it reduced the access to food and aid for millions of people who depend on grain imports for their survival.
The grain deal conflict was a manifestation of the ongoing war in Ukraine which started in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and supported separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. Despite several attempts to reach a peaceful resolution, the war has continued to escalate and threaten the stability and security of the region and the world. One of the factors that has contributed to the intensification and prolongation of the war is the use of new technologies, especially sea drones by both sides.
Sea drones are small, unmanned vessels that operate on or below the water’s surface. They can carry explosives, sensors, cameras, or other payloads and can be remotely controlled or programmed to follow a pre-set course. They are relatively cheap, fast, and stealthy making them hard to detect and intercept by conventional naval forces.
Both Ukraine and Russia have been using sea drones to strike each other’s ships and ports in the Black Sea especially near the Kerch Strait that connects Crimea to Russia. These attacks have not only caused damage to naval assets, but also disrupted and endangered the grain trade in the Black Sea as they have interfered with shipping activities, trade routes, and infrastructure.
Ukraine has been receiving sea drones from several countries, including Turkey, Israel, and the UK. These drones have been used to launch attacks on Russian targets, such as an amphibious landing ship and an oil tanker. Ukraine claims that these attacks are justified by Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and its violation of Ukrainian territorial waters. Ukraine argues that sea drones are a legitimate and effective means of self-defense and deterrence against Russian aggression.
Russia, however, has dismissed these claims as false and fabricated. Russia says that its ships and ports have not been hit by any sea drones and that Ukraine is trying to provoke a larger conflict. Russia also says that it has the right to defend its sovereignty and security in the Black Sea and that it has not invaded Ukraine but is supporting the self-determination of the people in eastern Ukraine. Russia has been using its own sea drones to monitor and harass Ukrainian ships and coast guard vessels in the Black Sea.
Russia has been developing its own sea drones domestically as well as acquiring some from foreign sources. These drones have been designed to perform various tasks such as delivering nuclear warheads, conducting underwater exploration and deceiving enemy radars. Russia has also been importing some sea drones from China, such as the Sea Wing glider, which can collect oceanographic data and transmit it to satellites or ships.
Russia argues that sea drones are a necessary and legitimate means of protecting its national interests and security in the Black Sea. It claims that sea drones are a response to NATO’s expansion and encroachment in the region. Russia also asserts that sea drones are a deterrent against Ukrainian aggression.
The use of sea drones by both sides has changed the dynamics of the war and the balance of power in several ways. First, it has increased the costs and risks of both sides’ military operations. Both sides have to invest more resources and manpower to protect their assets from enemy attacks and to launch their own attacks. Both sides also have to face more casualties and damage from enemy strikes. Second, it has created a stalemate in the naval domain.
Neither side can achieve naval superiority or dominance over the other due to their mutual ability to counter each other’s sea threats. Both sides have to rely more on low-altitude or stand-off attacks that are less effective but safer than high-altitude or penetrating attacks. Third, it has shifted the focus of the war to other domains. Both sides have to explore other ways to gain an advantage over the other, such as cyberwarfare, information warfare, economic warfare, or diplomatic warfare. Both sides also have to seek more support from their allies or partners to increase their leverage and influence in the region.
The use of sea drones by both sides has also raised several legal and ethical implications that need to be addressed by both sides and by the international community. Sea drones pose several challenges to the existing laws of war and human rights, as they raise questions about accountability, proportionality, discrimination, and transparency. For example, who is responsible for the actions and consequences of sea drones? How can sea drones distinguish between military and civilian targets? How can sea drones comply with the rules of engagement and avoid unnecessary harm? How can sea drones be monitored and controlled by human operators or authorities?
The use of sea drones by both sides has also had an environmental impact that needs to be considered by both sides and by the international community. Sea drones can cause significant damage to the marine ecosystem and biodiversity, as they can disrupt the natural balance of the water, create noise pollution, release toxic substances, or collide with marine life. Sea drones can also affect the livelihoods and security of coastal communities, as they can interfere with fishing activities, tourism, trade, or navigation. Sea drones can also pose a threat to critical infrastructure, such as pipelines, cables, ports, or bridges.
To sum up, the grain deal conflict has sparked a new crisis in the Black Sea that has been fueled by the use of sea drones by both sides. These new technologies have changed the dynamics of the war and the balance of power in several ways. They have increased the costs and risks of both sides’ military operations, created a stalemate in the naval domain, shifted the focus of the war to other domains, and had an impact on the export of grains via the Black Sea. They have also raised several legal and ethical implications and had an environmental impact that need to be addressed by both sides and by the international community. Sea drones are a technology that can be used for good or evil, depending on how they are used and regulated. Therefore, it is important that both sides and the international community work together to find a peaceful and lasting solution to the war in Ukraine and to ensure that sea drones are used responsibly and humanely.