Breaking the Blockade Risks War With Russia

Some US allies and Russia hawks in Washington are now agitating for the US and other members of NATO to use their naval forces break the Russian blockade of Ukraine. Retired Adm. James Stavridis is one of the latest advocates of this reckless idea, and he tries to sell it as an updated version of the US role in the Tanker War during the war between Iran and Iraq. The comparison is not a promising one. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is a more capable force than Iran’s navy was, Russia has repeatedly warned against outside interference in the war, and the Tanker War did not involve the possibility of setting off a war between NATO and a nuclear-armed major power.

Putting US and allied ships in harm’s way as escorts would be a serious mistake, not least because it runs significant risks of escalation if the escorting ships clash with Russian forces. Russia has a strong incentive to keep the blockade intact and they are unlikely to allow Western navies to break it without putting up serious resistance. Any proposal to break the blockade is an implicit call for committing acts of war against Russian forces with all the potentially disastrous consequences that come with it. Trying to break the blockade would be courting open war with Russia, which makes no more sense today than it did three months ago when the invasion began.

Stavridis’ argument suffers from most of the usual flaws that mar interventionist policies. He underestimates the risks and doesn’t even consider the possibility of escalation. He asserts that the chance of the Russians firing upon NATO vessels is "low" and then declares, "If, against the odds, the Russians did something stupid, it would be met with a proportional use of force." He also fails to consider how easy it would be for accidents or mistakes to trigger conflict between the escorts and the blockaders. He does not try to give an answer to the obvious question of how Russia would respond to this "proportional use of force," and he doesn’t explain how this blockade-running would be sustained over the months and possibly years that might be required.

The Lithuanian government has been one of the main advocates of breaking the blockade with Western and other ships, and they liken the coalition they want to create to various anti-piracy coalitions that have been employed in different parts of the world. The major differences between what Lithuania and a few other states propose and anti-piracy efforts in the past should be clear. There is a broad international consensus in favor of anti-piracy efforts, but it is doubtful that there would be similar support for risking escalation with Russia. Whenever a government official starts talking about a "coalition of the willing" to intervene somewhere, that is a sign that the proposed intervention is both dangerous and lacking in broad support.

Policing piracy is a much less dangerous undertaking, since there is little chance that the states involved in anti-piracy efforts could find themselves the target of direct retaliation. There are not many states that would want to commit their forces to such a mission, and as a practical matter it is safe to assume that the burden for implementing this plan would fall heavily on the US in the end. The Lithuanian government may describe it as a "non-military humanitarian mission," but it necessarily involves the use of military vessels and the implicit threat to use force against the navy of another state. The president doesn’t have the authority on his own to put US ships in "situations were imminent involvement in hostilities in clearly indicated by the circumstances," so if the Biden administration wanted to do this it would need Congress to approve of it first.

The destructive effects of the war on the global food trade are clear, and the longer that the war drags on the worse it will be for people in countries that depend on Ukrainian and Russian exports. The answer to this is not to pursue policies that risk widening the war, but to urge both governments to find a compromise that will lift the blockade and bring the fighting to an end. Ukraine is bearing the brunt of this war, but there are also tens of millions of people suffering from food insecurity that are paying the price as well. The US and its allies should be looking for ways to end the war sooner than later without direct involvement. Stavridis’ proposal would all but guarantee direct involvement in what would become a longer and more dangerous war. The Biden administration has so far been unwilling to take actions that risk widening the war, but the agitation for deeper involvement is constant and needs to be opposed whenever it appears.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.