Following the Russian withdrawal from the grain agreement, Moscow threatens to attack merchant ships. What does international law propose, and what can the West do?

The Russian Defense Ministry announced that, from July 20, 2023, all ships heading to Ukrainian ports through the Black Sea will be considered as potential carriers of military cargo. The countries under whose flags they sail will be classified 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? Deutsche Welle spoke to experts about it.

According to Johannes Peters, a security expert at the University of Kiel, a belligerent party cannot unilaterally declare individuals or organizations legitimate war targets. “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 equipment 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, not an enemy merchant ship, but a neutral ship, is searched and found to be carrying such a cargo, the belligerent is permitted to take control of it, but not to attack it. An attack would only be allowed if the ship was used to make an effective contribution to an enemy military action. For example, if the ship delivers intelligence of military value, if it lays mines or something similar. The mere fact that she navigates the Black Sea does not mean that she can legitimately be seen as a target,” explains the expert.

According to him, this also applies to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense statement 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 Kyiv as transporting military equipment from the 21st of this month. He adds, “if a ship is carrying military material for the enemy, she may be the target of attack.” But that has to be verified and cannot be based on suspicions.

What goals does Russia pursue?

In Johannes Peters’ view, Russia is not trying on the front line 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 for the fleets, and also the insurers, not to want to take risks and thus make it impossible for Ukraine to continue exporting grain,” the expert says.

What can the West do?

Peters says the West must now decide whether, if any, it would provide a 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.

Deutsche Welle