Russia’s Danube offensive is failing to dent Ukraine exports
Underlying concerns remain that continued attacks will hurt turnover in the longer term
Russian drone attacks targeting Ukraine’s Danube exports have cut capacity and added pressure to a supply chain already struggling with bottlenecks. But they have not yet significantly reduced shipments or curbed demand
THE barrage of Russian drone attacks on Ukraine’s Danube ports since July have failed to significantly reduce shipments or curb demand.
Analysis of Lloyd’s List Intelligence vessel-tracking data confirms immediate disruptions at the ports in the wake of the 11 drone attacks since July 24. But the effect on shipments has proved to be temporary.
Despite significant damage to maritime infrastructure, the impact of the attacks on shipments has been limited, and overall shipowners have been undeterred with inbound traffic continuing to flow at near-normal levels.
In the month following the first attack on the river ports some 353 cargo-carrying vessels arrived at Ukraine’s Danube ports, down from 360 during the previous four-week period.
Black Sea arrivals fell 13% over this period, while inland voyages rose sharply.
Inbound traffic recovered during the next month, with some 373 cargo-carrying vessels arriving between August 21 and September 17, a figure that is only slightly lower than normal levels.
According to customs data, Ukraine exported just over 2m tonnes of agricultural products via the Danube channels both in July and August. That compares with 2.2m tonnes in May and 1.9m tonnes in June.
During the first half of September some 1.1m tonnes of agricultural products were exported, down slightly month on month.
Russia began targeting the Danube ports shortly after it withdrew from the Black Sea Initiative, an agreement which enabled the safe transport of agricultural products from Ukraine’s greater Odesa ports.
There have been 11 direct attacks on Danube infrastructure since July 17, the day the grain deal ended, with the first drone strikes taking place on July 24.
The latest drone strike took place on Monday night, further damaging infrastructure at the port of Izmail.
Russia’s repeated attacks are widely seen as attempts to further curtail Ukraine’s ability to trade. The UK's Ministry of Defence has said Russia is trying to coerce and intimidate shipping into cutting trade ties.
While vessel-tracking analysis proves that the attacks are yet to have a significant impact, Ukraine’s leaders remain concerned that continued attacks will ultimately slow trade, not least because of pre-existing issues that have routinely caused logjams along the route.
One major problem is the build-up of vessels along the river.
Ships are able to enter the Danube river via the Bystroe and Sulina channels. However, draught restrictions mean many vessels can only exit through the Sulina Canal.
This leads to a backlog inland, which is exacerbated by a shortage of pilots.
Since August there have been more than two weeks where the Sulina Canal has been closed to inbound traffic to give pilots the opportunity to clear out ships waiting to enter the Black Sea.
A local consultancy estimated that at the beginning of August ships were waiting approximately 15 days to enter the Danube ports. As of mid-September this has decreased to five to seven days.
Vessels needing to exit via the Sulina Canal are now waiting some six to 10 days.
There are other issues that affect navigation, including low water levels and bad weather.
It is a challenge to isolate the impact of Russia’s strikes given the range of factors impacting efficiency, as well as the sheer length of time it takes for a ship to complete a voyage.
However, it is widely thought that the attacks are adding further pressure to the Danube supply chain.
Julia Kiryanova, chief executive of Smart Holding, one of the largest industrial and investment groups in Ukraine, which owns ports in Kherson and Mykolaiv said: “One of the heaviest impacts has been on the wider supply chain; the railway system has already been placed under immense pressure by the war and from a logistics point of view, the attacks on the infrastructure have created bottlenecks further down the supply chain.”
Further, while early data shows a steady inbound flow of ships, there are underlying concerns that the impact of the attacks will become more obvious over the longer term.
Katerina Kononenko, a port agent at Avalon Shipping, a shipping agency specialising in the transit of vessels through the Sulina channel to ports in Romania and Ukraine, said that the number of pro-forma invoice requests is falling.
Avalon Shipping receives approximately one to two requests daily, down from three to five.
Kononenko says that it is fear that has caused waning interest and indicates that there are owners that refuse to go to the Danube ports because of the threat of Russian attack.
Ukraine’s infrastructure minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said after a strike on September 13 that the attacks on the Danube have reduced grain export potential by almost 500,000 tonnes per month.
There is no indication that Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian port infrastructure will slow, with more than 20 strikes on ports across the country since Russia exited the grain deal.