Rus­sia's Azov block­ade:

How the Kerch bridge built by Rus­sia shuts off the ports in Mar­i­upol and Ber­diansk

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Denys Kazan­skiy

How the Kerch bridge shuts off the ports in Mar­i­upol and Ber­diansk

Rus­sia’s oc­cu­pa­tion of Crimea and the con­struc­tion of the bridge over the Kerch Strait had a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on the econ­omy of the Azov Sea area. Moscow has got exit from the Azov Sea un­der its sole con­trol fol­low­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion of Crimea. The key prob­lem is the way it has built the bridge to Kerch. Rus­sia’s in­ten­tion was to build it in a way that would hit Ukrainian sea­ports the most. Its height was low­ered down so ves­sels that are over 33 me­ters above the wa­ter sur­face will no longer be able to get into the Sea of Azov. As a re­sult, Azov ports will lose much of their cargo flow and rev­enues.

The con­struc­tion of the Kerch bridge was a topic of heated de­bate from day one. When Rus­sia an­nounced that it was go­ing to link Krasnodarski Krai with the Crimean penin­sula af­ter the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, a num­ber of ex­perts in Ukraine claimed that this was im­pos­si­ble. They were wrong. Rus­sia is close to fin­ish­ing the bridge and pledges to open for car traf­fic in May. This is ear­lier than sched­uled ini­tially.


Ob­vi­ously, this project was cru­cial to the Krem­lin. It was right to ex­pect that Moscow would make sure it is com­pleted, how­ever ex­pen­sive it would be. The Kerch bridge is less of an in­fras­truc­tural project, and more of a po­lit­i­cal one. Ukrainian ex­perts based their skep­ti­cism on the ex­pe­ri­ence of a sim­i­lar bridge con­struc­tion from the 1940s when the project failed. Yet, tech­nolo­gies have evolved sig­nif­i­cantly since, and Rus­sia would spare no ef­forts or money to com­plete the con­struc­tion.

The first Kerch bridge had been ru­ined by storms and ice. In Fe­bru­ary 1945, a huge mass of float­ing ice shat­tered its 30 pil­lars. This was fol­lowed by a de­ci­sion to not re­store it and the bridge was de­mol­ished com­pletely. But the Soviet Union did not need it so badly: any­one could get into Crimea through Ukraine.

To­day, the ques­tion of build­ing the bridge is cru­cial, and Rus­sia’s lead­ers take it se­ri­ously. How­ever much Ukraini­ans would like the new con­struc­tion to fol­low the fate of the first one, chances are slim that this will ac­tu­ally hap­pen. The first bridge was built hastily in a war-af­fected en­vi­ron­ment. That’s why it did not last long. Ice will hardly ruin the new bridge. There­fore, Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov will have to ad­just to the new re­al­ity, learn to sur­vive in the new en­vi­ron­ment and find a way to com­pen­sate for the losses caused by Rus­sia.

The con­struc­tion of the Kerch bridge has hit Ber­diansk and Mar­i­upol — es­pe­cially the lat­ter one as the Mar­i­upol sea­port is the deep­est of all in the Sea of Azov and can har­bor large ves­sels, un­like its neigh­bors. It is Ukraine’s third largest sea­port and a large en­ter­prise that pro­vides jobs to many in the city. In the past, it was the ex­port point for a huge va­ri­ety of pro­duce from the Don­bas in­dus­try, from coal and steel to equip­ment and in­dus­trial ma­chin­ery. Now, the port is fac­ing huge losses. On the days when the Rus­sian builders were in­stalling arcs on the bridge, traf­fic al­most stopped in the Kerch Strait. This halted traf­fic in Ukrainian sea­ports as well.

“144 ves­sels we used to work with will no longer be able to go through the Kerch-Yenikalsky chan­nel to the Mar­i­upol port,” Olek­sandr Oliynyk, Di­rec­tor of the Mar­i­upol Trade Sea­port said in an in­ter­view for Ra­dio Free Lib­erty. “This is be­cause the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion has is­sued an of­fi­cial doc­u­ment say­ing that ves­sels of over 33 me­ters above the wa­ter sur­face can­not pass un­der the Kerch bridge.”

Ac­cord­ing to him, large ves­sels like Pana­max will no longer en­ter Mar­i­upol be­cause of the bridge as they are at least 5-10 me­ters above the height of the Kerch bridge in the place where they would nor­mally cross the Kerch Strait. Mar­i­upol has al­ready lost a con­tract to sup­ply 1mn t of pig iron to the US — that ship­ment has gone to Odesa sea­port. The to­tal losses faced by the Mar­i­upol port from 1mn t of pig iron and 300500,000 t of steel pro­duce amount to nearly UAH 250mn of net in­come. The econ­omy of sea freight is pretty sim­ple: the larger the ship­ment, the lower the freight rate and the cheaper the ship­ment. From now on, it is im­pos­si­ble to ship larger car­gos from the Sea of Azov. The man­agers of the Mar­i­upol sea­port are look­ing for so­lu­tions of this dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion. Mar­i­upol is build­ing a grain ter­mi­nal to ex­pand the range of goods it can ship and thus com­pen­sate for the losses in­curred.

“The grain is shipped to the Mid­dle East, Africa and Italy through the port in Mar­i­upol. This sort of ship­ments does not re­quire a ves­sel like Pana­max. The most pop­u­lar ship­ments are 10-20,000 t. So there is no prob­lem with that. The ves­sels that are tak­ing car­goes to the open wa­ters trans­fer them through the ports in Myko­layiv and Odesa. While we are mostly ori­ented at the Mediter­ranean mar­kets,” Olek­sandr Oliynyk shares.

There is lit­tle doubt that Rus­sia has built its bridge so low in or­der to un­der­mine eco­nomic in­ter­est of Ukrainian ports. Ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, bridges that

re­strict ship traf­fic are no longer built in the world. Quite on the con­trary, the goal to­day is to re­con­struct old bridges so that they of­fer more tran­sit ca­pac­ity.

Apart from the height of the bridge, an­other prob­lem looms. The un­rec­og­nized sta­tus of Crimea pushes many to quit work­ing with sea­ports in the Sea of Azov in or­der to avoid san­tions. Since 2014, ships have been forced to pay fees to the oc­cu­py­ing power for cross­ing the Kerch Strait. The fee for a ves­sel ranges from US $2,500 to 9,000 based on the size, and in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies don’t know how such pay­ments will be in­ter­preted.

Ukraine never gave its con­sent for this bridge to be built. In Fe­bru­ary, all ma­te­ri­als on the bridge were col­lected and sent to the In­ter­na­tional Tri­bunal for the Law of the Sea. The con­sid­er­a­tion of it is likely to take years. This means that Ukrainian sea­ports in Mar­i­upol and Ber­diansk will in­cur losses. The bud­gets of these cities will lose rev­enues while res­i­dents will lose jobs.

Quite para­dox­i­cally, Rus­sia’s lead­ers speak a lot of the in­ter­ests of Rus­sian-speak­ers in South-East­ern Ukraine and claim to de­fend the Don­bas. Mean­while, the con­struc­tion of the Kerch bridge hits the eco­nomic in­ter­ests of that same Don­bas. The Mar­i­upol sea­port is in Donetsk Oblast. It is through Mar­i­upol that the goods and com­modi­ties pro­duced in the Don­bas used to be ex­ported. From now on, Mar­i­upol’s steel­work­ers will be forced to ship and re­ceive 20,000t+ cargo through Odesa and Myko­layiv. This will sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease their trans­porta­tion costs as they will also have to use the rail­way to de­liver the goods to and fro.

Be­cause of Rus­sia, the Mar­i­upol sea­port and the city will lose hun­dreds of mil­lions of hryv­nia on a yearly ba­sis while the res­i­dents of the Rus­sian-speak­ing Mar­i­upol will be hit the hard­est even though many of them joined the “Rus­sian spring” in 2014 and took it to the streets with the Rus­sian flags. Now Rus­sia is pay­ing them back for the loy­alty.

In fact, a long-time ten­dency is for the re­gions which Rus­sia rushes to “pro­tect” to suf­fer most from it. Transnis­tria, Abk­hazia, Os­se­tia and the oc­cu­pied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts have all turned into grey ar­eas with the poor­est life qual­ity in the post-soviet ter­rain. The Rus­sians failed to “lib­er­ate” Mar­i­upol back in 2014. So they hit it in a more so­phis­ti­cated way, by de­sign­ing a bridge to be too low to al­low traf­fic to the Mar­i­upol sea­port. Hope­fully, the lo­cals in Mar­i­upol will learn their les­son from this ex­pres­sion of Rus­sia’s “brotherly friend­ship”.

Taken hostage by pol­i­tics. Ukraine is forced to look for new chan­nels to trans­port the pro­duce of steel­works from Donetsk Oblast, as an al­ter­na­tive to the sea­ports of the Sea of Azov that are now blocked by the Kerch bridge

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