Ukraine loses con­trol of Azov Sea to Rus­sia

Kyiv Post - - National - BY VERONIKA MELKOZEROV­A MELKOZEROV­[email protected] Rus­sia's Black Sea Fleet as­sault craft Azov ap­proaches the Crimean Bridge as it crosses the Kerch Strait on Sept. 7. (

Rus­sia’s war against Ukraine, hav­ing al­ready killed more than 10,000 on land over the past four years, may soon shift to the sea.

Ex­perts say that Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s open­ing of the Crimean Bridge on May 15 marked the Krem­lin’s as­sump­tion of full con­trol over the Kerch Strait. Now Rus­sia is slowly ex­pand­ing its mil­i­tary pres­ence in the Azov and Black Seas.

In the last few weeks of May, the Krem­lin qui­etly re­de­ployed six mil­i­tary ves­sels from its Caspian Fleet to the Azov Sea. They were shal­low draught gun­boats and coastal pa­trol boats de­signed for op­er­a­tions in shal­low wa­ters like those of the Azov Sea.

In May it also con­ducted the naval drills very close to the 12-nau­ti­cal-mile zone of Ukraine’s ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters in the Azov Sea, clos­ing part of the sea for its mil­i­tary ex­er­cises.

Ac­cord­ing to Paul Goble, an ex­pert from the Jamestown Foun­da­tion think tank, this move­ment of forces is a show of force by Moscow to demon­strate that should Ukraine at­tempt to lib­er­ate any of the Rus­sian-oc­cu­pied Ukrainian ter­ri­tory on land, the Krem­lin can counter with an at­tack from the sea.

Writ­ing in the Eura­sia Daily Mon­i­tor on May 31, Goble also said a “darker” in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the re­de­ploy­ment of the war­ships is that Moscow may be con­sid­er­ing a fur­ther at­tack on Ukraine, to es­tab­lish a land cor­ri­dor to link the Rus­sianoc­cu­pied parts of the Don­bas with Rus­sian-oc­cu­pied Crimea.

That would en­tail the Krem­lin oc­cu­py­ing still more of Donetsk Oblast, and at least parts of Za­por­izhzhya and Kher­son oblasts as well.

Mean­while, the Krem­lin has been caus­ing Ukraine eco­nomic losses in the Azov Sea re­gion. Since the end of May naval pa­trols of Rus­sia’s Fed­eral Se­cu­rity Ser­vice or FSB have been stop­ping in­ter­na­tional cargo ves­sels go­ing to and from the Ukrainian ports of Mar­i­upol and Berdyansk, search­ing crews and ships for hours, and caus­ing thousands of dol­lars of losses to ship­ping com­pa­nies and Ukrainian ports.

There are no Ukrainian Naval Forces ships con­stantly present in the Azov Sea, where Ukraine bor­ders Rus­sia, Boris Babin, the per­ma­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the pres­i­dent of Ukraine on Crimea is­sues, told the Kyiv Post on June 7.

Only the marine squads of the Ukrainian Bor­der Guard Ser­vice pa­trol Ukraine’s ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters, but they can do noth­ing to stop Rus­sia’s ex­pan­sion. That’s be­cause the Krem­lin isn’t ac­tu­ally break­ing any laws.

In­cred­i­bly, in the fifth year of Krem­lin’s war in the Don­bas and Crimea oc­cu­pa­tion, there are still agree­ments in place be­tween Rus­sia and Ukraine that prac­ti­cally erase Ukraine’s sea bor­ders with Rus­sia, al­low­ing Rus­sia to send its cargo and mil­i­tary ves­sels wher­ever it wants in the Azov Sea.

“Rus­sia is not vi­o­lat­ing any laws, as for­mally the Azov Sea is our com­mon na­tional wa­ters,” Oleh Slo­bodyan, the spokesman of the State Bor­der Guard Ser­vice of Ukraine told the Kyiv Post on June 7.

Broth­erly na­tions

In 2003 Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Leonid Kuchma and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin signed an agree­ment be­tween Ukraine and the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion on co­op­er­a­tion and the shared use of the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait. The agree­ment was rat­i­fied in 2004 and is still in force.

“Ukraine and the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion, two his­tor­i­cally broth­erly na­tions, de­fine the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait as eco­nom­i­cally im­por­tant for both coun­tries,” the agree­ment reads.

The Azov Sea agree­ment also de­fines the sea as the com­mon ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters of Ukraine and Rus­sia, and reads that Ukraine and Rus­sia are to de­cide where to draw their sea bor­ders. The de­ci­sion should have been made in 1997, but never was.

“Rus­sia kept block­ing all Ukrainian of­fers. We for­mally have our bor­der end­ing on the coast of the Azov Sea,” An­drii Kly­menko, the chief ex­pert of the Maidan of For­eign Af­fairs NGO, which mon­i­tors all Rus­sian and Ukrainian ac­tions in Crimea and the Black Sea, told the Kyiv Post on June 6.

Ukrainian au­thor­i­ties and mil­i­tary forces have been do­ing all they can to strengthen Ukraine’s pres­ence in the Azov Sea, but these ac­tions re­main se­cret, Babin said.

The govern­ment is plan­ning to ex­pand the bor­der guard ser­vice squads to Henich­esk, a small town in Kher­son Oblast on the coast of Azov Sea, im­me­di­ately to the north of Rus­sian-oc­cu­pied Crimea.

“But first we need to get 150,000 dif­fer­ent ap­provals. It is or­di­nary Kyiv bu­reau­cracy. It seems to me that some peo­ple in pow­er­ful po­si­tions don’t even re­mem­ber that there’s war go­ing on in Ukraine,” Babin said.

Eco­nomic block­ade?

The Azov Sea is the shal­low­est sea in the world, only about 14 me­ters deep at most. Ukraine uses some of its deep­est parts at the ports of Berdyansk and Mar­i­upol, where depths are from eight to 10 me­ters. In Rus­sian Azov Sea ports the depths are from three to seven me­ters. The Kerch Strait, where the Azov Sea meets the Black Sea, is at most some 17 me­ters deep.

While ear­lier Ukraine’s Mar­i­upol and Berdyansk Ports were able to ac­cept heavy cargo ves­sels (if they were lightly loaded), the Rus­sians were forced to first load their car­gos onto smaller ves­sels, which would pass through the Kerch Strait and then trans­fer their loads to big­ger ships in the Black Sea.

Af­ter the Krem­lin in­vaded Crimea in 2014 and started its oc­cu­pa­tion of the Ukrainian penin­sula, Mar­i­upol and Berdyansk ports started to ac­cept part of the cargo traf­fic that formerly went to the Crimean ports. In­ter­na­tional sanc­tions for­bade com­pa­nies to do busi­ness with the ports in Rus­sian-oc­cu­pied Crimea.

How­ever, af­ter Rus­sia started build­ing the Crimean Bridge in April 2015, cargo trans­ship­ment in Mar­i­upol Port in Donetsk Oblast dropped by more than 14 per­cent. It fell from more than 8.9 mil­lion tons of cargo in 2015 to 6.5 mil­lion tons in 2017, reads Mar­i­upol port’s of­fi­cial web­site.

In Berdyansk Port in Za­por­izhzhia Oblast the sit­u­a­tion is even worse. Ac­cord­ing to its of­fi­cial web­site, cargo trans­ship­ment in Berdyansk dropped by more than 30 per­cent, from 4.5 mil­lion tons of cargo in 2015 to 2.4 mil­lion tons in 2017.

Kly­menko said that in ad­di­tion to the low height of the Crimean Bridge, which pre­vents large, heavy ves­sels from en­ter­ing the Azov Sea at the Kerch Strait, Rus­sia’s FSB has started stop­ping cargo ves­sels go­ing to the ports of Mar­i­upol and Berdyansk.

“It all started at the end of April. At first they said Ukrainian cargo ves­sels go­ing to the Ukrainian ports were be­ing stopped and searched due to the threat of ter­ror­ism. They said they were try­ing to catch Ukrainian sabo­teurs who were plan­ning to blow up the bridge,” Kly­menko said.

At first ves­sels were halted for a max­i­mum of two hours. But in May the Rus­sians started halt­ing and search­ing ves­sels for longer pe­ri­ods. Ves­sels were halted “in ac­cor­dance with the norms of Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion law,” the FSB said.

Kly­menko re­ported that since April FSB has stopped and searched more than 26 Ukrainian and in­ter­na­tional cargo ves­sels go­ing from and to Ukrainian ports, with­out giv­ing any clear rea­son.

“Ves­sels were forced to drop an­chor for from eight to 10 hours. That’s al­ready dam­ag­ing the busi­ness, caus­ing de­lays and there­fore miss­ing dead­lines for cargo de­liv­ery,” Kly­menko said.

Ayna Cha­gir, a Mar­i­upol Port spokesper­son, on June 6 con­firmed to the Kyiv Post that ves­sels had been de­layed, and said that some cargo ves­sels had been stopped and searched for more than 20 hours.

“This dis­turb­ing sit­u­a­tion leads to in­creas­ing fi­nan­cial dam­ages, as ship­ping com­pa­nies have been los­ing from $5,000 to $15,000 a day be­cause of these un­rea­son­ably long de­lays and stops,” Cha­gir said.

She added that due to the con­stant halt­ing of ves­sels in the Kerch Strait and Azov Sea, Mar­i­upol Port was empty from June 2 to June 4, and that also has caused fi­nan­cial losses to the port — one of the big­gest con­trib­u­tors to Mar­i­upol’s city bud­get.

“Ship­ping com­pa­nies are busi­nesses, and all this mess in the Azov Sea means risk,” Kly­menko said.

“News spread quickly. In­sur­ance com­pa­nies are putting their prices up. Sailors don’t want to work on ves­sels that might be ar­rested by the un­pre­dictable Rus­sians.”

The ex­pert added that more and more ship­ping com­pa­nies are re­ori­ent­ing their cargo traf­fic to other, safer ports in the Black Sea re­gion.

“To me this looks like the start of the eco­nomic block­ade,” Kly­menko said. “Ukraine should def­i­nitely re­spond some­how. State Bor­der Guard Ser­vice boats must es­cort and pro­tect cargo ves­sels go­ing to and from Ukrainian ports.”

But Slo­bodyan said to do that, Ukraine needs bet­ter and more pow­er­ful mil­i­tary ves­sels than the ar­mored mo­tor boats of State Bor­der Guard Ser­vice.

New bat­tle­front

The con­fronta­tions at sea could also es­ca­late from an eco­nomic block­ade to a new ac­tive bat­tle­front, ex­perts say.

Rus­sia ex­plains its grow­ing pres­ence in the Azov Sea by the need to de­fend oc­cu­pied Crimea and the newly erected bridge from Ukraine.

Rus­sian-led forced in the Rus­sianoc­cu­pied part of Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast also claim they have their own Azov Sea fleet, based in the Rus­sian-con­trolled vil­lage of Se­dove in Donetsk Oblast, which is only about 50 kilo­me­ters east of Mar­i­upol.

Goble of the Jamestown Foun­da­tion wrote that in 2016 Rus­sian-led forces in Donetsk asked the Krem­lin to send ships to the Azov Sea to sup­ple­ment their own naval forces in order to seize more of the Ukrainian coast, but at that time the re­quest was flatly turned down.

Some­thing has ap­par­ently changed in the Krem­lin’s cal­cu­lus now, Goble added.

In­deed, when one of the Rus­sian­led forces’ lead­ers, Zakhar Prilepin, told Putin dur­ing the pres­i­dent’s an­nual phone-in on June 7 that Ukraine might use the dis­trac­tion on the 2018 World Cup in Rus­sia to start a mil­i­tary of­fen­sive in the Don­bas, Putin said: “If it hap­pens, such a move will have se­ri­ous con­se­quences for Ukraine’s sovereignt­y.”

Babin said Ukrainian forces are fully pre­pared to pro­tect Ukraine’s coast from pos­si­ble at­tacks from the sea. But Ukraine still needs to strengthen its pres­ence out into sea, and to ex­pand its naval fleet.

Although Babin said that Ukrainian fleet is not present in the Azov Sea, the navy press ser­vice wrote on Face­book on June 7 that Ukrainian naval forces have been train­ing in the Azov Sea since 2015, pro­tect­ing the coast.

To push back against Rus­sia’s ex­pand­ing in­flu­ence, Ukraine should pro­claim its own eco­nomic zone in the Azov Sea, and de­fine its ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters, Babin said.

Rus­sia will ob­ject, Babin said, but Ukraine must do more to pro­tect its bor­ders on land and at sea. Since it started its oc­cu­pa­tion of Crimea, Rus­sia has been ex­pand­ing its pres­ence not only in the Azov Sea but

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