As Rus­sia mo­nop­o­lizes Azov Sea, Mar­i­upol feels height­ened dan­ger


MAR­I­UPOL, Ukraine — In Au­gust 2014, Ukrainian ac­tivists in Mar­i­upol were dig­ging trenches and weav­ing cam­ou­flage nets. They were work­ing fran­ti­cally to help the Ukrainian army stop the ad­vance of Rus­sian-led forces, which had come to within 20 kilo­me­ters of the city.

Four years later, the threat has moved from land to sea.

Ac­tivists anx­iously mon­i­tor the move­ments of Rus­sian war­ships off the Ukrainian coast, fear­ing

an am­phibi­ous as­sault on Mar­i­upol, an in­dus­trial sea­port city of nearly 500,000 peo­ple on the coast of the Azov Sea, 800 kilo­me­ters south­east of Kyiv.

De­spite Mar­i­upol be­ing the scene of fight­ing and rocket at­tacks dur­ing the early phase of Rus­sia’s on­go­ing war in eastern Ukraine, life has gen­er­ally been peace­ful since 2015.

But since May, when Rus­sia opened the Kerch Bridge con­nect­ing Rus­sia to the Krem­lin-oc­cu­pied Ukrainian Crimean penin­sula, Rus­sian coast guard mem­bers sub­or­di­nate to the Krem­lin's FSB se­cu­rity ser­vice — the suc­ces­sor to the Soviet-era KGB — have started stop­ping trade ships in the Azov Sea. The pre­text is to keep the bridge and Rus­sian coast se­cure.

The Rus­sians are within their rights to do this un­der an agree­ment the Krem­lin signed with Ukraine in 2003, dur­ing the rule of Pres­i­dent Leonid Kuchma. It al­lowed Ukraine and Rus­sia to pa­trol all of the Azov Sea and to sail to within 22 kilo­me­ters of each other's coast­lines.

But Rus­sian mil­i­tary power boats some­times come within six kilo­me­ters to Ukraine’s coast, ac­tivists say, and there's noth­ing Ukraine can do about it.

Ukraine’s poorly equipped coast guards can only watch. And while Kyiv has an­nounced it will hold sev­eral mil­i­tary ex­er­cises this sum­mer in the Azov Sea, this is more to boost lo­cal morale than scare off the Rus­sians, ex­perts say.

The Rus­sians "can do what­ever they want. Our bor­der, in fact, is at the edge of the sea,” said Mariya Pody­bailo, a Mar­i­upol vol­un­teer who is help­ing Ukrainian army.

Col­league Ga­lyna Od­norog added: “Any­thing could ig­nite the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion and take it from peace to war. We’re in a tin­der­box here.”

Pa­trols at sea

De­spite a threat­en­ing storm, a small UMS-1000 power­boat, nick­named “Lit­tle Boy” by coast guards, leaves Mar­i­upol port in late July to pa­trol.

Al­though Ukrainian coast guards usu­ally ven­ture no more than 24 kilo­me­ters from the shore, they see their Rus­sian coun­ter­parts al­most ev­ery day and talk to them by ra­dio.

“We usu­ally tell them not to come close to our coast, and they re­spond that they won’t,” said Oleg Vorontsov, a ra­dio op­er­a­tor.

Vorontsov added that he also hears by ra­dio how the Rus­sians talk to mer­chant ves­sels — con­ver­sa­tions that of­ten end up with the ships be­ing stopped and boarded for checks that can take from sev­eral hours to sev­eral days.

The Rus­sians don’t usu­ally give any rea­sons for mak­ing the check, and don’t leave any writ­ten re­ports with ship cap­tains, as such pa­pers could be used in court cases.

There’s noth­ing the Ukrainian coast guards can do to stop the Rus­sians.

The Mar­i­upol coast guards, who pa­trol more than 300 kilo­me­ters of Azov Sea coast­line, have up to 20 small ves­sels, and just two coastal pa­trol ships that es­caped from Kerch to Mar­i­upol in March 2014 dur­ing the Rus­sian in­va­sion of Crimea.

One of those war­ships, BG-32 Don­bas, was con­structed 32 years ago, an­other one, BG-59 Onyx, is a for­mer Turk­ish fish­ing ves­sel con­fis­cated from poach­ers a decade ago. The coast guards say Onyx is the best ves­sel they have.

An­other tro­phy the coast guards have is a boat con­fis­cated in 2015 from fish­er­men who showed IDs is­sued by au­thor­i­ties in the Rus­sianoc­cu­pied part of Donetsk Oblast. But apart from that case, the coast guards have never come across any boats from the parts of the Don­bas un­der Rus­sian oc­cu­pa­tion.

But the boats from Rus­sia are a con­stant ir­ri­ta­tion for them.

“There should be one owner (of the Azov Sea), not two,” said Artem Po­li­akov, the press of­fi­cer of the Mar­i­upol De­tach­ment of Mar­itime Se­cu­rity, part of Ukraine’s Joint Forces Op­er­a­tion, which now con­ducts the mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion to pro­tect Ukrainian ter­ri­tory in the east.

Po­li­akov wor­ries that Rus­sia might be­come even more ag­gres­sive at sea in 2019, when Ukraine is dis­tracted by its pres­i­den­tial and par­lia­men­tary elec­tion cam­paigns.

Weak point

In this re­gion, Ukraine also up­holds one more coastal guard de­tach­ment in the city of Berdyansk, some 60 kilo­me­ters south­west of Mar­i­upol. How­ever, this unit en­gages ob­so­lete small pa­trol boats, and also falls short of very ba­sic ca­pa­bil­i­ties of mar­itime war­fare, such as ship­wreck mis­siles, or coastal radar sta­tions.

After Rus­sian-led forces failed to de­feat Ukraine on land in 2014, the Krem­lin chose to put pres­sure on Ukraine from the sea in 2018, know­ing that this is the weak­est area of Ukraine’s de­fenses, said Taras Ch­mut, the head of the Ukrainian Mil­i­tary Cen­ter de­fense news web­site and a for­mer ma­rine.

Rus­sia has de­ployed 10 war­ships and up to 40 fast pa­trol boats in the Azov Sea, Ch­mut es­ti­mates. And in just one day, Rus­sia could also move to the Azov Sea war­ships based in the eastern Crimean city of Kerch or from other Black Sea bases, where it has in­creased its fleet size by 30 ves­sels in re­cent years.

Un­like Ukraine, which lost up to 80 per­cent of its navy when Crimea was oc­cu­pied, Rus­sia has been devel­op­ing its Black Sea Fleet since 2014.

Ac­cord­ing to An­drii Kly­menko, a mar­itime ex­pert and the chief ed­i­tor of the Black Sea News web­site, the newly de­ployed Rus­sian ves­sels in the Azov Sea in­clude at least six Sh­mel-class ar­tillery boats, seven as­sault land­ing craft, and two corvettes ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing the Kal­ibr cruise mis­siles that Rus­sia had ear­lier used to de­liver dev­as­tat­ing strikes upon Syria.

On June 7, Ukraine’s De­fense and Se­cu­rity Coun­cil con­firmed that Rus­sia wants to res­ur­rect its Azov flotilla and re­de­ployed a num­ber of its mis­sile war­ships and land­ing craft from the Caspian Sea de­tach­ments.

On top of that, Rus­sia’s air­power of the South­ern Mil­i­tary District and in the oc­cu­pied Crimea would en­joy the ab­so­lute air supremacy over the Azov Sea re­gion, as well as the whole ter­ri­tory of Ukraine.

Should a sea bat­tle be un­leashed, this sit­u­a­tion leaves lit­tle chance for Ukraine to pre­vail.

Ch­mut be­lieves that Rus­sia has enough mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties to at­tack Mar­i­upol from the Azov Sea, but that it would rather con­tinue its “hy­brid at­tacks.”

Pri­vate in­ter­ests

Kly­menko reck­ons more than 140 Ukrainian and for­eign ves­sels have been stopped by the Rus­sians in Azov Sea since May, with the long­est check ex­ceed­ing five days. He also showed the Kyiv Post a list of 24 cases in which Rus­sian coast guards il­le­gally stopped ships that were closer than 22 kilo­me­ters from Ukraine’s coast.

Ukraine, mean­while, has closed three sec­tions of its Azov Sea coast un­til the end of the sum­mer to con­duct mil­i­tary ex­er­cises. The three sec­tions of coast are all po­ten­tial land­ing sites for an am­phibi­ous as­sault by Rus­sia, Ch­mut said.

He be­lieves Ukraine was right to take that ac­tion. But apart from that, Ukraine should ur­gently start devel­op­ing its navy and pun­ish state of­fi­cials who ham­per the bol­ster­ing of this area of de­fense.

He pointed to one case in par­tic­u­lar — since 2015, the United States has been of­fer­ing to sup­ply Ukraine with mod­ern coastal radars that would al­low the coun­try ef­fi­ciently mon­i­tor the sea.

But Ukraine ini­tially re­fused the help, and even now has not yet taken de­liv­ery of the sys­tems.

More­over, since 2014, the United States has been of­fer­ing to give Ukraine for free two used Is­land­class pa­trol boats, Ch­mut said. Ukraine would, how­ever, have to pay $10 mil­lion to train the crews and trans­port the boats across the At­lantic. But for years Ukraine’s govern­ment has done noth­ing to take up the U.S. of­fer.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Schemes pro­gram of Ra­dio Lib­erty re­vealed in March that the de­lay could be linked to the pri­vate in­ter­ests of Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko and his friend and law­maker Ihor Kononenko. The two own the Kyiv-based Ry­bal­sky Kuz­nia ship­yard, which sup­plies the coun­try’s mar­itime forces with new ships.

In the wake of the scan­dal pro­voked by the Schemes in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the govern­ment took ac­tion to take de­liv­ery of the U.S. pa­trol boats, but at this rate they won’t be in ser­vice un­til late 2019, Ch­mut said.

Pres­sure on ports

But while peo­ple in Mar­i­upol fret over the Rus­sian checks of ship­ping, of­fi­cial Kyiv seems to be un­con­cerned by the sit­u­a­tion.

Olena Zerkal, Ukraine’s deputy for­eign min­is­ter for Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion, said in late July that the Azov Sea cri­sis had been “ar­ti­fi­cially cre­ated in the me­dia,” ad­ding that no ship own­ers had com­plained to the min­istry about the Rus­sian checks.

But Od­norog, the vol­un­teer, said she knows that one for­eign ship owner has al­ready re­fused to sail to Mar­i­upol be­cause of the losses he had suf­fered from the de­lays caused by the Rus­sian checks.

Anton Shapran, the head of ship­ping com­pany Mar­itime Lo­gis­tics, which han­dles about 70 ships per year in the Azov Sea, said each 24 hours of de­lay costs ship own­ers about $6,000 in losses.

He said ship op­er­a­tors and own­ers had de­cided to wait and mon­i­tor the sit­u­a­tion be­fore de­cid­ing what to do next.

“No­body knows how long this will last. Maybe as long as the (Kerch) bridge stands,” Shapran said.

Mar­i­upol Sea Port lost the use of 144 ships and 30 per­cent of its rev­enues after Rus­sia con­structed the bridge to Crimea. That’s be­cause the struc­ture has a clear­ance of just 33 me­ters, meaning large ves­sels can no longer pass through the Kerch Strait.

Now the port’s more than 3,000 em­ploy­ees fear that if more cargo and money are lost, they will end up los­ing their jobs as well.

“The loss of any ton of cargo could be fa­tal for us,” said Maryna Pereshy­vailova, an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer and of­fi­cial of the port’s trade union.

Pereshy­vailova said she can’t un­der­stand why, de­spite be­ing at war for four years, Ukraine’s au­thor­i­ties have failed to aban­don the 2003 treaty that gives Rus­sia a free hand in the Azov Sea.

Ch­mut agrees that Ukraine needs to ur­gently de­nounce the treaty and im­me­di­ately start devel­op­ing its navy.

“If Rus­sia sees that we’re not re­act­ing, then they’ll try to do some­thing in the Black Sea as well,” he said. “The eco­nomic con­se­quences would be much worse then.”

Kyiv Post staff writer Veronika Melkozerova con­trib­uted to this story.

A Ukrainian coast guard mem­ber climbs out through the hatch of a fast pa­trol boat in Mar­i­upol port on July 25. Mar­i­upol coast guard mem­bers, who pa­trol more than 300 kilo­me­ters of the Azov Sea coast­line, have 20 ves­sels, most of which are out­dated or...

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