The danger of escalation of the war in the Black Sea?

Black Sea War

The Russian Defense Ministry stated that, from July 20, 2023, all ships heading to Ukrainian ports via the Black Sea will be considered as potential carriers of military cargo. The countries under whose flags they sail will be listed as “involved in the conflict in Ukraine“, in favor of Kyiv.

Does international law allow the attack on merchant ships? And what consequences can the de facto blockade of Ukrainian ports have? DW spoke to experts about it.

A belligerent party cannot unilaterally declare individuals or organizations legitimate war targets, according to Johannes Peters, a security expert at the University of Kiel. “A Russian attack on merchant ships on an international voyage would not be covered by international law or the law of war,” he says. The mere suspicion that a ship might be carrying military material does not justify an attack.

What is allowed?

Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg, professor of International Law at the Viadrina European University, clarifies that a belligerent party can search any vessel heading into enemy territory. If contraband material is found, the world must be notified. But it is necessary to previously publish a list of goods that are not allowed to transport.

“If a ship is recorded, that is not an enemy merchant ship, but a neutral ship, and it is found that it has such a load, it is allowed to the belligerent to take its control, but not to attack it. An attack would only be allowed if the ship was used to make an effective contribution to an enemy’s military action. For example, if the ship delves It can be legitimately seen as a target, ”explains the expert.

According to him, this also applies to the statement of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense on July 20 that all ships heading to Russian ports on the Black Sea or to ports in the annexed territories would be seen by Kiev as transporting military equipment from the 21st of this month. He adds that “if a ship is actually carrying military equipment for the enemy, it can be targeted.” But that has to be proven and cannot be based on suspicion.

What goals does Russia pursue?

In the view of Johannes Peters, Russia is not trying on the front lines to weaken Ukraine, but rather the West, using starvation as a weapon to induce it to ease sanctions. “According to the Russian calculation, the threat of measures is enough so that the fleets, and also the insurers, do not want to take risks and, in this way, it becomes impossible for Ukraine to continue exporting grain,” says the expert.

What can the West do?

Peters says the West must now decide whether, if any, it would provide military escort to international merchant ships, which is currently under discussion. However, that seems hardly practicable to him. First, Turkey would have to approve the presence of a number of military vessels in the Black Sea. In addition, special routes would have to be established. The expert notes, at the same time, that the risk of Western states becoming involved in direct warfare with Russian warships, even by mistake, would be too great. “Since the start of the war, both Russia and the West have tried to prevent such an escalation,” he stresses.