An (un)ex­pected storm

Is es­ca­la­tion pos­si­ble in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea in 2020?

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - An­driy Kly­menko, In­sti­tute of Black Sea Strate­gic Stud­ies mon­i­tor­ing group

Is es­ca­la­tion pos­si­ble in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea in 2020?

Fore­cast­ing risks that en­sue from Rus­sia’s pos­si­ble ac­tions in the Black and Azov seas is no longer some­thing ex­tremely dif­fi­cult or un­re­al­is­tic — the ex­pe­ri­ence of 2014-2019 serves the pur­pose, as long as we do not give in to the in­for­ma­tion and po­lit­i­cal hysteria around.

Rus­sia’s oc­cu­pa­tion of Crimea un­earthed the long con­served geopo­lit­i­cal di­vide along the Sea of Azov, the Black and the Mediter­ranean seas. Tec­tonic shifts like this do not stop on their own.

The pro­cesses of 2020 will be the con­tin­u­a­tion of Rus­sia’s strat­egy and tac­tics, us­ing mil­i­tary, geographic and geopo­lit­i­cal op­por­tu­ni­ties cre­ated in Crimea in six years of oc­cu­pa­tion be­yond the penin­sula. In a nut­shell, its mil­i­tary threat and im­pe­rial ex­pan­sion will be pro­jected be­yond Ukraine to cover the whole of South-Eastern Eu­rope, South Cau­ca­sus, Turkey, and the Syr­ian knot in the Mid­dle East with fur­ther devel­op­ment in North Africa. An­other el­e­ment of this is cre­ation of Moscow-con­trolled chaos wher­ever pos­si­ble, pri­mar­ily in the EU and NATO states, as well as the Balkans.

The prob­lem of free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait that broke out “un­ex­pect­edly” in April-May 2018 should be viewed in this con­text. 2019 has al­ready shown some el­e­ments, at­tempts and sketches of the “Azov tech­nique” for the ex­pan­sion of sea oc­cu­pa­tion into the Black Sea.

The anal­y­sis of un­grounded halt­ing of ves­sels head­ing to/from Mar­i­upol and Ber­diansk, Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov, dur­ing the last 18 months reveals some pat­terns and leads to in­ter­est­ing al­lu­sions.

With no ef­fec­tive re­sponse from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, Rus­sia has grown more brazen in the Kerch Strait, now us­ing nav­i­ga­tion asym­met­ri­cally as part of its de­mands for ne­go­ti­a­tions on un­re­lated is­sues, such as re­sump­tion of wa­ter sup­ply to the oc­cu­pied Crimea.

Eu­ro­pean lead­ers have used the same asym­met­ric ap­proach to tem­porar­ily de­crease the time for which ships are held in the Kerch Strait by link­ing this to the EU’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing on the con­struc­tion of Nord Stream 2 and di­rect sanc­tions against Rus­sian ports in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. In Ukraine, this move was some­times re­ferred to as “the Merkel-Macron ra­tio”.

Once Nord Stream 2 re­ceived fi­nal ap­provals and the ra­tio was no longer valid, the ves­sels were once again halted in the Kerch Strait for longer pe­ri­ods. When the Rus­sian strate­gists wanted to look in­no­cent in the runup to the In­ter­na­tional Tri­bunal for the Law of the Sea sev­eral months later, the de­lays of the ves­sels nav­i­gat­ing to and from Mar­i­upol and Ber­diansk near the Kerch Strait shrank again (see di­a­gram).

Un­der no cir­cum­stances, how­ever, the du­ra­tion of de­lays re­turned to the pre-block­ade time. As Lithua­nia’s For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Linas Linke­vičius once de­scribed it aptly, it’s as if some­one stole $1,000 from some­one, re­turned $100 and every­one is happy that he is will­ing to co­op­er­ate.

Rus­sian strate­gists use th­ese on­go­ing vi­o­la­tions of in­ter­na­tional law to test the limit of con­ces­sions and pa­tience of the civ­i­lized world and its readi­ness to re­spond to Rus­sia’s whims.

Based on this al­go­rithm and ear­lier ex­pe­ri­ence, it is fairly easy to fore­cast sce­nar­ios for 2020.

The Azov sea port ac­counts for just a small frac­tion of ex­ports com­pared to the other nu­mer­ous ports in Odesa, Myko­layiv and Kher­son. We are al­most cer­tain that the Azov cri­sis was a test. Ukraine’s key ex­port routes are in the Black Sea lead­ing to the Bospho­rus.

From H2’2018, Rus­sia has been in­creas­ing the num­ber of navy ships and coast guard boats in the Sea of Azov. It sends new ships there and trans­fers the ves­sels en­gaged in the Caspian, Baltic and White seas via do­mes­tic river routes.

Next to the rec­om­mended Odesa-Bospho­rus sea routes in the Black Sea are the oil drills lo­cated on Ukraine’s shelf and cap­tured by Rus­sia at the be­gin­ning of the oc­cu­pa­tion of Crimea. Few pay at­ten­tion to the fact that th­ese plat­forms at the Odesa field, also in­fa­mously re­ferred to as Boyko drills, are closer to Odesa coast than they are to the oc­cu­pied Crimea. The clos­est Rus­sia-seized drill is 77.6km or 41.9 miles away from Odesa coast, 50.4km or 27.1 miles from the Snake Is­land, and 121.5km or 65.6 miles from Cape Tarkhankut. The clos­est drill to Kher­son coast is just 52.2km or 28.2 miles away (see map).

Each plat­form and drill has long hosted a gar­ri­son of Rus­sian spe­cial forces or marines, as well as radars for sur­face, un­der­wa­ter and air sur­veil­lance — in to­tal, over a dozen Rus­sian mil­i­tary ob­jects on Ukraine’s shelf. While auxiliary boats pa­trolled them in the past, the 41st Mis­sile Boat Brigade of the Rus­sian Black Sea Fleet has been do­ing that since June 1, 2018 with 24/7 ro­ta­tion and pow­er­ful battleship­s.

In one pos­si­ble sce­nario, Rus­sia could start halt­ing the ves­sels head­ing to and from Odesa for check-ups. The FSB can eas­ily come up with a re­port about a di­ver­sion group

on one of the ves­sels with plans to ex­plode the drills at the stolen Odesa field (which Rus­sia con­sid­ers its own in ad­di­tion to the rest of the Ukrainian shelf where it ex­tracts and steals up to 2bn cu m of gas an­nu­ally). If Rus­sia does so one, two or three times, the con­se­quences for the traf­fic in that area are easy to see. This may not hap­pen with proper de­ter­rence, but that sce­nario should be on the ta­ble.

An­other plau­si­ble sce­nario is a land­ing op­er­a­tion, pos­si­bly with di­ver­sion groups, on the Ukrainian Black Sea or Azov coasts. The Sea of Azov has al­most en­tirely be­come a Rus­sian lake by now as the Rus­sians en­joy ab­so­lute dom­i­na­tion there. Over the years of oc­cu­py­ing Crimea, Moscow has se­ri­ously re­in­forced its Black Sea Fleet. As a re­sult, Rus­sia en­joys full ad­van­tage in the sea and may well be plan­ning to use this ad­van­tage — espe­cially in 2020 when the tran­sit of Rus­sian gas via Ukraine as a de­ter­rence could dis­ap­pear.

The prob­lem of a land­ing op­er­a­tion is that it is im­pos­si­ble to guess where ex­actly it could hit. Ukraine’s en­tire coast­line in both seas is vul­ner­a­ble to such op­er­a­tions. How can Ukraine re­spond in the sea? All Ukraine’s gov­ern­ment can do un­til it se­ri­ously re­in­forces its Navy, i.e. for the next 3-4 years, is ask NATO to have its mil­i­tary ves­sels per­ma­nently pa­trolling the area like they did in 2014. Af­ter March 2014, NATO ships pa­trolled the Black Sea al­most 90% of the days un­til the end of that year. In our opin­ion, that pre­vented the out­break of an “Odesa Peo­ple’s Repub­lic” on May 2, 2014.

In or­der to pre­vent such op­er­a­tions, Ukraine could try to cre­ate a sea bor­der in the Sea of Azov in 2020. This means in­form­ing the world that the 2003 agree­ment on co­op­er­a­tion in joint use of the Sea of Azov with Rus­sia is no longer valid, so Ukraine can uni­lat­er­ally de­clare the area its ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters un­der the UN Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea and pro­tect this bor­der with all navy and coast guard means.

Apart from the sea bor­der, there will be more need for asym­met­ri­cal sanc­tions against Rus­sia in 2020. It is highly likely that in­ter­na­tional eco­nomic re­stric­tions will be im­posed on Rus­sian ports in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov for trips to the oc­cu­pied Crimea as part of the “up­dated Crimean pack­age” to re­place or re­in­force the “Azov pack­age”. This could be ef­fec­tive de­ter­rence against Rus­sia in its in­ten­tions to oc­cupy the Black Sea.

Clearly, Ukraine will fur­ther strengthen its marine ca­pa­bil­i­ties in 2020. It might fi­nally de­velop a proper sea pol­icy in the con­text of real threats to the free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, now fi­nally rec­og­nized both do­mes­ti­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally af­ter 2018-2019. For now, Ukraine is still a state with lan­dori­ented think­ing and a habit of fight­ing wars on horses, carts, APCs and tanks.

Azov ex­pe­ri­ence of­fers an­other source of hope: the halt­ing of trade ves­sels dur­ing move­ment in the sea stopped when Ukraine’s Navy started es­cort­ing com­mer­cial boats from Mar­i­upol to Kerch. It is there­fore pos­si­ble that ships from NATO coun­tries could be in­vited to join Ukraine’s Navy in es­cort­ing or pa­trolling trade ves­sels along in­ter­na­tional sea routes.

One hope­ful fac­tor which the Rus­sian strate­gists seem to have missed is that free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion is a fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple of the civ­i­lized world that stands along­side free­dom of trade and hu­man rights. There­fore, en­gag­ing the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity in an ef­fort to block threats to this free­dom could also de­liver some pos­i­tive re­sults in 2020.

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