Ukraine and Rus­sia take their con­flict to the sea

Rus­sia is stronger than Ukraine on the sea, but ro­bust U.S. sup­port for Kiev could al­ter the sit­u­a­tion in the area.

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Contents -

The con­flict be­tween Ukraine and Rus­sia has so far been re­stricted to ground bat­tles over con­trol of east­ern Ukraine. Re­cent devel­op­ments, how­ever, sug­gest that the war – now in its fifth year – could soon spread to the sea. On Sept. 16, the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment an­nounced plans to cre­ate a naval base in the Sea of Azov be­fore the end of the year, four days be­fore Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko con­firmed Kiev's in­ten­tions in a speech to par­lia­ment. The state­ments come amid mil­i­tary buildups by both Ukraine and Rus­sia in the Sea of Azov, which have been pro­voked in part by Moscow's con­struc­tion of a bridge be­tween Crimea and main­land Rus­sia. The bridge has al­lowed the lat­ter to ha­rass Ukrainian ves­sels as part of larger re­stric­tions on its ship­ping. As a re­sult of the grow­ing ten­sions, a flare-up is now en­tirely pos­si­ble on the Sea of Azov, es­pe­cially if the United States also brings its weight to bear in the con­flict.

De­ploy­ing the Navy

Ukraine an­nounced the de­ploy­ment of two ar­moured ar­tillery boats to the port city of Berdyansk on Sept. 8, about a week af­ter a Ukrainian naval com­man­der said the coun­try would send more ves­sels, marines and ar­tillery to the sea. And to sup­port the naval buildup, the com­man­der of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, Col. Gen. Ser­hiy Popko, an­nounced on Sept. 12 that Ukraine would bol­ster its ground forces near the sea amid plans to es­tab­lish per­ma­nent ter­ri­to­rial de­fence struc­tures and de­ploy mis­sile and ar­tillery forces, as well as the air force, to the re­gion "to pro­vide re­li­able coastal de­fence." For its part, Rus­sia has re­port­edly re­de­ployed at least 10 war­ships and up to 40 pa­trol boats from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Azov in re­cent months.

In terms of over­all naval de­ploy­ments, Rus­sia is in a much stronger po­si­tion than Ukraine in the area around the Black Sea. The Ukrainian navy pos­sesses 66 com­bat and aux­il­iary naval units, as well as about 11,000 ser­vice mem­bers. In con­trast, Rus­sia's Black Sea Fleet, which is head­quar­tered in Sev­astopol, boasts more than 2,800 ves­sels and 25,000 ser­vice mem­bers. And the dis­par­ity is not just in quan­tity but in qual­ity as well: On aver­age, Ukraine's ves­sels are much smaller and weaker than those of their Rus­sian ad­ver­saries.

Forty Rus­sian war­ships are cur­rently on the Sea of Azov, although Moscow has not per­ma­nently sta­tioned the ves­sels there. In­stead, it can move its war­ships be­tween the Azov and Black seas as nec­es­sary. At the same time, Rus­sia has also sta­tioned 40,000 troops in Crimea.

Kiev suf­fers from the added dis­ad­van­tage that it lost the port city of Sev­astopol af­ter Moscow an­nexed Crimea in the wake of the Euro­maidan upris­ing in

2014, forc­ing Ukrainian au­thor­i­ties to shift their pri­mary naval base to Odessa. At present, Ukraine does have a pres­ence on the Sea of Azov, but the de­ploy­ments are rel­a­tively small, fea­tur­ing just two coast guard de­tach­ments in Berdyansk and Mar­i­upol that use only small and out­dated pa­trol boats.

The Bridge Putting Up Bar­ri­ers

The Sea of Azov is of crit­i­cal im­por­tance to Ukraine's econ­omy – per­haps even more so since Kiev lost Crimea – be­cause 80 per­cent of the coun­try's ex­ports now pass through the body of wa­ter. Af­ter Moscow an­nexed Crimea, Berdyansk and Mar­i­upol be­gan to re­ceive some of the cargo traf­fic that pre­vi­ously went to Ukrainian ports in the penin­sula. But Moscow's con­struc­tion of the new bridge across the Kerch Strait, the only pas­sage be­tween the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, has cut cargo ship­ments to the Ukrainian ports – and trig­gered the mil­i­tary buildup by both coun­tries.

Tech­ni­cally, both Ukraine and Rus­sia en­joy free use of the Sea of Azov un­der a 2003 agree­ment, but Moscow has sub­jected Ukrainian ves­sels to its own au­tho­riza­tion pro­ce­dures to tra­verse the strait since con­struc­tion be­gan on the bridge in April 2015. The Rus­sian Trans­port Min­istry has pe­ri­od­i­cally closed ac­cess to all Ukrainian ships af­ter a July 2017 or­der that en­abled Rus­sia to deny ac­cess to the Sea of Azov to any ves­sels ex­cept Rus­sian war­ships dur­ing cer­tain times­pans. Rus­sia duly shut off ac­cess dur­ing Aug. 27-29 and Oct. 11-13 last year. (Com­pound­ing Ukraine's prob­lem is the de­sign of the bridge, which is too low for Pana­max ves­sels, which ac­counted for about 23 per­cent of all ship traf­fic in the area in 2016, to pass through.)

As a re­sult, cargo flows from Mar­i­upol have dropped 27 per­cent, from more than 8.9 mil­lion tons in 2015 to 6.5 mil­lion tons in 2017; from Berdyansk, they have fallen 47 per­cent, from 4.5 mil­lion tons in 2015 to just 2.4 mil­lion tons in 2017. Be­fore the Ukraine con­flict, freight traf­fic was much higher, with 15 mil­lion tons of cargo pass­ing through Mar­i­upol in 2013 alone.

In re­cent months, Rus­sia has been in­ter­rupt­ing even more freighter traf­fic from Ukraine, stop­ping as many as 148 ships sail­ing to Ukrainian ports be­tween May and mid-July, ac­cord­ing to Ukraine's in­fra­struc­ture min­is­ter, Volodymyr Omelyan. In to­tal, Rus­sia's ac­tions are cost­ing Ukraine $20 mil­lion to 40 mil­lion ev­ery year, and although they have not yet led to sup­ply short­ages, the costs could pile up in the fu­ture. In re­sponse, Poroshenko has ac­cused Rus­sia of vi­o­lat­ing in­ter­na­tional law, prompt­ing Ukraine to file a case against Moscow in in­ter­na­tional ar­bi­tra­tion courts in ad­di­tion to de­ploy­ing more naval forces to the area.

The Sea Be­tween East and West

The mil­i­tary buildups and grow­ing ten­sions be­tween Rus­sia and Ukraine on the sea come amid a broader stand­off be­tween Moscow and the West over Ukraine. The United States and the Eu­ro­pean Union have ex­tended and in­creased sanc­tions against Rus­sia over the con­flict in Ukraine. At the same time, the var­i­ous sides to the con­flict have failed to make progress on ne­go­ti­a­tions over a U.N. peace­keep­ing force in Don­bas due to dif­fer­ences be­tween Rus­sia and the West over its ob­jec­tives and lim­its.

In the mean­time, fight­ing in east­ern Ukraine has been in­creas­ing af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of Donetsk leader Alexan­der Zakharchenko at the end of Au­gust – an in­ci­dent that dis­rupted a cease-fire agree­ment to mark the start of the school year. As a re­sult of Zakharchenko's mur­der, Rus­sia has said it no longer has im­me­di­ate plans to meet in the Nor­mandy Four, a group­ing that brings to­gether Rus­sia, Ukraine, Ger­many and France as part of a broader po­lit­i­cal com­po­nent of the ne­go­ti­a­tions, although it con­firmed that it would not en­tirely aban­don the Minsk process – the tac­ti­cal com­po­nent of the ne­go­ti­a­tions fea­tur­ing Rus­sia, Ukraine and the West.

Mean­while, Ukraine has been re­vis­ing or ter­mi­nat­ing many of its agree­ments with Rus­sia as it pur­sues the longer-term aim of sev­er­ing its links with Moscow. As part of a first step, For­eign Min­is­ter Pavlo Klimkin has said Kiev plans to ter­mi­nate the agree­ment on the use of the Sea of Azov.

En­ter Wash­ing­ton?

As with the con­flict in east­ern Ukraine, the U.S. po­si­tion in sup­port­ing Ukraine in its mil­i­tary buildup on the Sea of Azov will be crit­i­cal in man­ag­ing the grow­ing ten­sions in the Ukraine con­flict. Since the Euro­maidan upris­ing, the United States has in­creased its se­cu­rity as­sis­tance to Ukraine, send­ing the coun­try lethal weaponry – par­tic­u­larly the anti-tank Javelin mis­sile sys­tems – while also par­tic­i­pat­ing in joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises with the East­ern Eu­ro­pean ally. On the Sea of Azov, the U.S. State Depart­ment has de­nounced Rus­sia's al­leged "ha­rass­ment of in­ter­na­tional ship­ping," while the depart­ment's spokes­woman, Heather Nauert, ac­cused Rus­sia of at­tempt­ing to desta­bi­lize Ukraine through its in­ter­fer­ence with ships. Amid such a back­drop, U.S. spe­cial en­voy to Ukraine Kurt Volker vis­ited Kiev last week and said that Wash­ing­ton was con­sid­er­ing send­ing more lethal weaponry, although it is not yet clear if such arms would have a di­rect con­nec­tion to the Sea of Azov.

Ul­ti­mately, how­ever, there is lit­tle the United States can re­al­is­ti­cally do with re­gard to the Ukrainian navy in the short term, be­cause the force is sim­ply too weak in com­par­i­son to its Rus­sian coun­ter­part. Wash­ing­ton, as well as Brus­sels, could po­ten­tially help Kiev in oth­ers ways through the pro­vi­sion of fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance or port in­vest­ment to com­pen­sate Ukraine for some of its losses. Al­ter­na­tively, if the United States de­cides to demon­strate its sup­port for Ukraine in a more phys­i­cal man­ner – such as by send­ing naval ves­sels to visit the coun­try's Azov ports, for in­stance – it could up­end the na­ture of the con­flict.

Just as the risk of an es­ca­la­tion in the ground con­flict in east­ern Ukraine is grow­ing, the po­ten­tial for mar­itime flare­ups be­tween Kiev and Moscow is ris­ing as both de­ploy naval forces to the Sea of Azov. As Ukraine chafes at the re­stric­tions Rus­sia has im­posed on its ship­ping, ques­tions over the use of the sea will loom large in the broader stand­off be­tween the Krem­lin and the West over Ukraine – par­tic­u­larly as Wash­ing­ton mulls whether to en­ter the con­flict more force­fully on Kiev's side.

The mil­i­tary buildups and grow­ing ten­sions be­tween Rus­sia and Ukraine on the sea come amid a broader stand­off be­tween Moscow and the West over Ukraine.

“Ukraine and Rus­sia Take Their Con­flict to the Sea” is re­pub­lished un­der con­tent con­fed­er­a­tion be­tween Fi­nan­cial Nige­ria and Strat­for.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Nigeria

© PressReader. All rights reserved.