(CN) — Russian forces this week are making advances in the eastern Donbas region as Ukrainian troops withdraw from towns and villages and desperately fight to hold onto key cities.
While the momentum on the battlefield in Donbas seems to be turning slowly in Russia's favor, Kyiv remains defiant and hopeful it can win the war through the valor of Ukrainian fighters, a mass mobilization to arm 1 million people and the arrival of powerful weapons from the West.
The worst of the fighting is taking place between infantries and artilleries fighting in the green plains and woods of Donbas, but the war is evolving into a potential naval confrontation in the Black Sea as the West talks about forcefully breaking Russia's blockade of Ukrainian grain shipments.
Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of grain and fertilizer but the war has interrupted shipments from Ukraine's Black Sea ports and fears of further global price spikes and spreading famine are growing. Commercial shipping from Ukraine has all but ceased due to the presence of mines in the sea, several past strikes on commercial vessels and the presence of Russian warships.
On Monday, the United Kingdom and Lithuania proposed sending warships to guard grain shipments leaving Ukraine's ports and sending in experts to demine the sea lanes.
“Time is very very short. We are closing in on a new harvest and there is no other practical way of exporting the grain except through the Black Sea port of Odesa,” Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania's foreign minister, told the Guardian. “There is no way of storing this grain and no other adequate alternative route. It is imperative that we show vulnerable countries we are prepared to take the steps that are needed to feed the world.”
Landsbergis described the plan as “a non-military humanitarian mission” and not similar to enforcing a no-fly zone, which was a step too far for NATO. British Foreign Minister Liz Truss said she supported the plan.
“We would need a coalition of the willing – countries with significant naval power to protect the shipping lanes, and countries that are affected by this,” Landsbergis said. One country that might get involved, according to reports, is Egypt. It relies heavily on Ukrainian grain and largely supports the West.
Another component to ending the Russian blockade is arming Ukraine with anti-ship missiles so it can strike at Russian vessels. On Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the United States will supply Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Kyiv via Denmark.
“If we receive even more military support, we’ll be able to throw them back … defeat the Black Sea fleet and unblock the passage for vessels,” said Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's foreign minister.
Ukraine has already had some success in the Black Sea with the sinking of the Moskva, Russia's Black Sea Fleet flagship, in April. But Russia has destroyed most of Ukraine's navy and it has occupied the key Snake Island off the coast of Odesa following heavy fighting.
Andrius Tursa, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe at the London-based political risk firm Teneo, said in a briefing note that many in the West may be worried that Lithuania's plans to unblock Odesa could risk expanding the war.
“As with the earlier calls for a no-fly zone over parts of Ukraine, many Western countries might be hesitant to risk direct military confrontation with Russia, which could eventually escalate into a wider conflict,” Tursa said.
So far, Russia has not attempted an assault on Odesa, though the Kremlin is eager to seize it in a bid to cut Kyiv off from the Black Sea entirely and connect the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova with other parts of southern Ukraine, such as Mariupol, that it has seized. Also, Odesa is home to many ethnic Russians and it has deep historical significance for Russia.