Since the beginning of April, Russia’s special forces began the widespread and unreasonable increase of the number of inspections of ships sailing to Ukrainian ports through the Kerch Strait. Recently, it was reported, that the number of seized ships has increased to 148. Opinion found out how representatives of the Ukrainian authorities and responsible agencies commented on such actions of Russia, what is the Russian’s goal, how legitimate these actions are and whether the problem is really relevant.

What are the comments of the officials on this issue?

Petro Poroshenko, the president of Ukraine, commenting on the seizing of the Ukrainian ships by the aggressor country, said that he had provided the necessary decrees to the Minister of Defense, the Navy Commander in order sufficient measures to be taken to stop the violation of the law and stop Russian provocations.

“We see, that this is being done in order to block Ukraine on the Azov Sea. It’s possible to escalate the tension, it is conceivable to provide a military operation of attacking Mariupol, where export of steel products of Ukraine is carried out, attacks on other ports of the Azov Sea”, Poroshenko assured.

The President also stressed, that there was an urgent need to increase the military combat readiness of the Ukrainian naval forces. After all, Ukraine, according to the head of state, is not going to put up with such actions of Russia.

“Therefore, now the vital importance is the combat capability and combat readiness of the Naval Forces of Ukraine and cooperation with our partners and allies from NATO member states and security allies in the Black Sea region”, the president said.

Deputy Minister of Infrastructure Yurii Lavrenyuk stressed, that the Russian authorities did not explain the reasons for such massive inspection of the ships, creating by these actions tension in the region. In addition, the owners of the vessels are forced to bear tangible costs.

“The authorities of the Russian Federation do not explain the reasons for the inspections of ships, thus creating tension in the region and preventing peaceful navigation in the north-eastern part of the Black Sea and the Azov Sea. As a result of such inspections, the vessels are idle from several hours to several days. Shipowners bear unreasonable tangible expenses”, Yurii Lavrenyuk is convinced.

But it seems, that in the State Border Guard Service, they do not see any problems regarding Russian inspections. According to information published on the official website, the Azov Sea has been considered to be the internal sea for both countries since 2004.
“In the Azov Sea, employees of the Russian border department continue to carry out an inspection of foreign cargo ships. This applies both to those, who head for the Ukrainian ports, and those that head for the opposite direction.

After inspections, the vessels are heading further, sometimes with the drafting of the act by Russian border guards, sometimes without this document. The State Border Guard Service has repeatedly reported, that this situation began to be actively recorded from April this year. Previously, the Russian Federation did not carry out such reviews and now did not use them as an element of economic and political pressure.

This is a reminder, that since 2004, the Azov Sea is considered to be the internal sea for both countries, and each side can freely move along the Azov Sea basin”, the message says.

Why does Russia detain vessels?

Mykhailo Andriiovych, a journalist and former deputy of local self-government in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, explained in a comment to Opinion that Russia really wants to turn the water area into a “closed zone for international shipping”, and has a number of reasons for this. Among them – a desire to provoke Ukraine, economic pressure, troubles with the Kerch Strait Bridge, etc.

“The Azov Sea turns into “pirate Somalia”. The Russian Navy has now clearly chosen the way of a kind of imperialism – the lawful power of the merchant ships of the enemy state or other states. The interception of Ukrainian vessels by the Coast Guard of the RF in the Azov Sea shows, that Russia seeks to bypass international treaties to turn the water area into a “closed zone for international shipping”. Russia has several reasons for this.

  1. A peculiar “act of defiance” against conducting international military exercises “Seabreeze-2018”. Like, you have your own … “and we have our own mind”. Such a curtain-raiser in an excuse for a massive escalation of the military conflict in Donbas.
  2. Provoking, the Russian side may pursue the goal of inciting counter-actions by the Ukrainian side. To tell the truth – Ukrainian naval forces are now represented in the Azov Sea by the “small navy” and by ships of the border guard. Those dozens of vessels obviously are not able to counteract the ships attackers, which prevail, both quantitatively and in terms of the power of artillery and missile arsenals. Therefore, Ukraine cannot afford taking steps to “counteract” the detention of ships under the Russian flag  – it will clearly be regarded by Russia as a violation of “agreements” and a manifestation of the same piracy.
  3. Economic tension is aimed to show the world, that the territorial waters of Ukraine are controlled by it, that is why the shipping is more dangerous. This may affect the increase in the cost of chartering vessels for access to the Ukrainian ports of the Azov coast. Given that Berdyansk and Mariupol are “sea gates” for the further transportation of products of the metallurgy and coal industry – the consequences may be rather unpredictable for the Ukrainian economy.
  4. Full transformation of the Crimean peninsula into the military zone. Not only that Russia, in violation of international agreements, is planning (or has already) implementation of nuclear weapons in the Crimea, it needs to restrict the access of intelligence collection ship, which has the equipment to fix the fluctuations of radiation background deviations. As far as we know, Russia has restored the work of the radio-detectors and the electronic warfare stations, is working to restore the base of submarines in Balaklava and improve the coast defense of the island with modern rocket-artillery complexes, such as the “Bereg” system.
  5. There are problems with the Crimean Bridge. As you know, it was built in a hurry, there was a significant amount of deviations from the project and construction standards. On almost every vessel, that passes under it, it is possible to fix some defects”, Mykhailo Andriiovych convinced.

Yurii Shulipa, the head of the Institute for National Policy named three components instead, that made Russians more active in detaining the vessels. In particular, according to the expert, Moscow wants to block Ukrainian ships in the port of Mariupol and to break off the maritime transport between Mariupol and Berdiansk. “The activation of the ships of the border guards of the FSS in the Azov Sea, the illegal detention of Ukrainian naval vessels and seamen, has a triple military-political significance for Russia.

First of all, the criminal military-political tasks of Russia are to maximize the possible damage to the Ukrainian economy. The Russian leadership set the task for the border guards of the FSS of the Russian Federation to prevent the passage of Ukrainian vessels in the Azov Sea. The criminal tasks of Russia are to block the Ukrainian ships in the port of Mariupol by the method of blackmail and threats, as well as to break the maritime transport connection between Mariupol and Berdiansk. Such actions of Russian border guards have nothing to do with maritime law, it is an outright crime against citizens, property, and economic interests of Ukraine.

Russia has only one purpose – to make the ships of the Ukrainian fleet not to swim in the Azov Sea. The above facts fit into the logic of the Russian economic war against Ukraine. In such a criminal way, the Russian leadership is trying to cause economic and industrial damage to the Mariupol Metallurgical Combine and other companies, whose activities are ensured by maritime shipping.

Secondly, the illegal detention of Ukrainian sailors, and, in fact, capturing them under the cover of legal procedures, is a blackmail to put pressure on Ukrainian society and leadership. In the war with Ukraine, the Russian leadership uses frankly terrorist methods of intimidation and terror, specifically to demoralize, weaken, and then destroy the Ukrainian state. This is a common, very common practice of the Russian terror.

Thirdly, Russia, under the guise of securing the so-called Crimean bridge, is expanding the grouping of naval forces in the Azov Sea, where military training is also being conducted. Thus, Russia is preparing for a possible military strike on the Mariupol direction in case of destabilization of the socio-political situation in Ukraine during the presidential elections in 2019”, was said in the comments on Opinion.

Are the actions of the aggressor country legitimate?

Volodymyr Ogryzko, Ukrainian diplomat and ex-minister of foreign affairs, expressed the belief, that the statement of the border service regarding allegedly legal actions of Russia is inadmissible and is the evidence of the lack of political will and decisiveness to make decisions.

“I was surprised by the position of our State Border Guard Service, which considers “the inspections” of ships in the Azov Sea legitimate: as if it is provided by the agreement on the Azov Sea from 2004. Perhaps, our border guards actually learned how to read between lines and see even what it cannot be seen, but in the text of the contract, you will not find any mentioning of it. To be honest, it looks like our border services do not want to perform the functions that are assigned to them in accordance with the law.

Such statements do not stand up to criticism. I think that is what many of our political figures and state bodies are suffering from – the lack of political will and resolve to make decisions. When I was dealing with the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea, I was watching horrific things: when our two law enforcement agencies played football with each other, and everyone was shifting responsibility from one another to another. And our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the civil ministry, then fought for law enforcement agencies and ministries to do what they were supposed to do. Now we are watching something similar in the Sea of Azov”, said the diplomat.

What could be at the end of the situation in the Azov Sea?

Military expert Oleh Zhdanov, in a comment to one of the Ukrainian TV channels noted, that Ukraine is currently lacking in maritime technology to counteract possible new Russian aggression. According to a specialist, now it is not about the strengthening of the fleet.

“There is one frigate “Getman Sagaidachnii” in Ukraine and two “Gyurza” artillery boats that do not set the tone. In case of military threats, they will not reach from Odessa even to the Kerch Strait. Because Russia has a naval base in Sevastopol. About the submarine forces, there is nothing to say. We left the only submarine in Sevastopol, although not in combat readiness”, said the expert.

However, the expert is sure, that Volodymyr Putin will not spoil the image of the “peacemaker”. In particular, because the script with “green men” cannot be repeated, as this time nobody will believe the Russian president. Therefore, all the movement of military equipment will be possible only under the flags of the Russian Federation, which in fact can be regarded as a war.

“Why should Putin spoil the image of the “peacemaker”, which he makes for five years if it is possible to solve all issues economically? Putin held the World Cup, met with Trump, if he solves the war on the European continent, it would break his entire game.

The situation in the Azov Sea, maybe, will end in auctions on the principle: save Mariupol, give the Crimea water. And this will mean, that we will cut the peninsula from Ukraine forever. Instead of cutting Crimea’s light and gas, we will give them water. It will only be possible to execute Minsk treaties, recognize the annexation, to federalize the country and give Russia a powerful lever of the management of Ukraine’s foreign and domestic policy”, the specialist stressed.

How sensitive is the issue?

Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine on European Integration Olena Zerkal, on the air of one of the TV channels, stressed, that all discussions on the issue of the Azov Sea and detained vessels were artificial, and no complaints from the shipowners were received.

“Now there is an artificially created exaggerations of the Azov issue in the information field. It has always existed. The military presence in the Azov Sea is more Russian than ours, it is clear. For all canons of international maritime law, warships have the right to stop civilian ships for inspection. To do this, you do not need any credentials.

If this does not exceed the reasonable period of detention, there are no complaints from the captains, shipowners, we (in Ukraine) have the opportunity to say only what we believe. Based on what? Based on information in the media, there is a problem with the delay of the ships. If we have materials that allow us to protest against detention, we will use it”, Olena Zerkal is thinking.

Text: Dmytro Zhuravel

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