An inland sea covering an area of approximately 7100 hundred miles, the Sea of Marmara separates the Asian region of Turkey from the European region (Eastern Thrace) of Turkey. This landlocked sea connects with the Black Sea through the Bosphorous Strait in the northeast and links with the Aegean Sea through the Dardanelles Strait in the southwest. The Sea of Marma is also part of the Turkish Straits System.
For decades, the Sea of Marmara has served as a critical waterway transportation route for the movement of gas and petroleum to Europe from western Russia and Asia. Prior to the escalation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 22, 2022, Ukraine had been a leading exporter of grain to Europe, the U.S., Africa, and many other world countries.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative
Just a few months after Russia invaded Ukraine and prevented Ukraine from transporting grain via the Sea of Marmara, the dramatic acceleration of global food insecurity demanded an immediate resolution to this crisis. On July 22, 2022, Ukraine and Russia signed the Black Sea Grain Initiative brokered by the United Nations and Turkey.
The separate agreements signed by Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskiy re-established the exportation of Ukrainian grains and Russian fertilizer that had been sitting in Black Sea ports since the invasion began. The Black Sea Grain Initiative also reopened three Ukrainian ports essential for exporting grains: Yuzhny, Chernomorsk, and Odesa.
Although the Black Sea Grain Initiative isn’t set to expire until the end of November 2022, considerable delays involving the transportation of Ukrainian grain are ongoing due to slower-than-normal cargo inspections. In addition, Russia is now criticizing the Black Sea Grain Initiative, complaining that their exports are deliberately being prevented from leaving ports. Putin has even said he may reject the extension of the initiative when it expires in November.
Recent Developments Involving the Marmara Sea and Ukraine Grain Exports
The Sea of Marmara is home to 16 harbors and ports critical to streamlining the export of grains. In September 2022, the Institute of Black Sea Strategic Studies discovered that ships carrying Ukrainian grain remained in the Sea of Marmara for up to 11 days waiting for inspectors. In October 2022, that delay increased to 15 or 16 days.
An article published in Ukrainian Shipping Magazine on October 24, 2022, reported a “large traffic jam in the Sea of Marmara” due to inspection delays. At that time, over 100 ships were sitting in the Marmara Sea and 50 other ships were waiting to be inspected in the Black Sea. According to the head of the Institute of Strategic Black Sea Studies Andrii Klymenko, there are at least one and a half million tons of grain that will be unable to reach purchasers in a timely manner because of inspection delays.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs believes it is the actions of Russia that are deliberately causing delays and traffic jams for Ukrainian grain-bearing ships. In addition, Ukraine’s MFA blames political motivations on the part of the Kremlin for preventing grain from being moved out of Marmara Sea ports.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative included the organization of inspection teams (the Joint Coordination Center) by Ukraine, Turkey, Russia, and the United Nations. However, Zelenskiy has accused Russia and its inspectors of refusing to abide by the agreement for the past several months. The UN has called for “spot checks” of grain ships instead of full inspections to ease the bottleneck in the Marmara Sea but nothing has been accomplished yet to expedite inspections.