For the fifth consecutive year, Ukraine bears the burden of the Crimea, annexed by the Russian Federation, and partially occupied Donbas. The difficult situation on the Sea of Azov is tangling up. Russia is increasingly positioning itself as the sole owner of the reservoir “for two”. The arrogance of the aggressor crossed all the borders on November 25 ‒ the Russians no longer simply detained Ukrainian ships, but also rammed them, fired upon, wounded our sailor.
Sunday morning, the press center of the command of the naval forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine announced that the Russian border ship “Don” rammed the Ukrainian raiding tug “Yany Kapu”, who carried out a planned transition from Odesa to Mariupol, along with small armoured artillery carriers “Berdyansk” and “Nikopol”. This was informed in advance, however, contrary to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Treaty between Ukraine and the Russian Federation on cooperation in the use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, several border ships of the Russian Federation took an outrageous step. The main engine of our ship “Yany Kapu” was damaged because of the ram by the “Don”, also another damage was caused.
A few hours later, it was reported that two attack helicopters of the Russian Armed Forces Ka-52 took a combat course on our boats, which subjected to aggression by the Russian ships. For three hours the Ukrainian vessels waited for the passage through the Kerch Strait, where allegedly stranded a ship from the Russian Federation. The commander of the naval forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Ihor Voronchenko, called the situation difficult and tense, but he assured that combat readiness reigns on our armoured boats.
Then the worst happened. After the start of the movement to the exit of the naval group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine from the Kerch Strait, Russian ships and boats pursued them, demanding to stop under the threat of using weapons. After leaving the 12-mile zone, the boats of the PS of the FSS of the Russian Federation opened fire on our vessels. At this time, the damage suffered the boat “Berdyansk”. He lost its course, there is a wounded person. Weapons were used to defeat. Then came the information that the Russians had captured all three Ukrainian ships.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry assured that they would take all the necessary measures of diplomatic and international legal response.
The problem was unnoticed
The aggressor let himself go, although the story of the Kremlin’s domination in the Sea of Azov was written long before that. The first alarming signals that the Russians are delaying the ship for inspections at sea, which are sent to our ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk, were received more than six months ago. At first, the official reaction of the Ukrainian authorities was rather sluggish, everything was written off to the panic mood of the journalists. However, soon, the authorities recognized the issue as serious. It happened when the phenomenon became a tendency, which one cannot fail to notice, because the aggressor becomes more arrogant, and domestic ports, port cities, and with them the entire economy of the country, suffer millions of losses.
“At first there was a rejection of the problem, when representatives of the Foreign Ministry and politicians said that it was being inflated by community activists and journalists, and everything was calm there,” Taras Chmut, the chairman of the board of the Ukrainian Armed Center, said to Opinion. “Then they recognized the problem and the fact that it really poses a threat both to the socio-economic situation in the region and to the security policy of the country.”
Ukraine has become hostage to the already mentioned Treaty that the Sea of Azov is an inland water body of the two countries. The Kremlin, feeling the strength and impunity, took full advantage of the situation. How to resist its pressure?
“There are attempts to act somehow,” Taras Chmut continued. “Before the end of the year, to make a decision to form components of the Navy. Additional floating facilities are being deployed there, a naval base is being planned, training off the coast guard and marines in the region has been stepped up, and various scenarios for repelling naval landing have been worked out. But all these actions do not solve the essence of the problem.”
We are not yet able to drag on military power with the Russians, although it is said about a significant deterrent. And the fact that Ukrainians began arresting Russian violating vessels causes the rage attacks of the aggressor.
“The situation in the Sea of Azov is worsening,” Roman Bessmertny, politician, Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine (2005), told to Opinion. “Considering that both Ukraine and Russia are sizable military forces, any small spark can lead to a serious armed conflict. At the same time, the question of Azov does not appear in either the Norman or Minsk formats. The approach of the presidential campaign in Ukraine is holding back the situation with aggravation, but at the same time, provoking it. The Kremlin will determine its further actions, based on how events in the Crimea, the Donbas and the Sea of Azov will affect the results of these elections. If it is profitable for the Kremlin to start hostilities there now, it will go for it.”
The upcoming elections will determine the behaviour of the aggressor in the Azov Sea. In severity, the situation is in third place after the events of Donbas and the Crimea.
“The situation is only getting worse, this can lead to the conflict,” Ihor Romanenko, the lieutenant-general of the reserve, a military expert, confirmed to Opinion. “But I don’t think that the conflict of the level of war between Russia and Ukraine, as at present, according to expert estimates, is beneficial for Putin. He chose more economical and efficient way for Russia ‒ interference in our elections.”
“The situation in the Sea of Azov ‒ on the coast, with the coast guard, the formation of the fleet ‒ not better than at the front,” Roman Bessmertny said. “There is a lack of communications, weapons, watercraft for the fleet, coast guard systems, infrastructure systems, services problems. Not to mention training. The situation is difficult, not to say tragic. As for the political reaction, it also is too weak. Work at the international level in the question of Azov failed. The conflict has been going on for several months now, and Ukraine is only beginning to slowly swing at the diplomatic level.”
Understanding of what is really happening is provided by the work of the head of Monitoring Team “Maidan Foreign Affairs” and “The Black Sea Strategic Studies Institute”, the chief editor of BlackSeaNews, Andrii Klymenko “The Economic War in the Sea of Azov. Blocking the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk as of November 1, 2018.” Honored Economist of the ARC, pursued by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation for resisting the occupation of the Crimea and included in the official list of terrorists and extremists of the Russian Federation, using maps and graphs, analyzed the areas and the number of artificial detention of vessels. Mr Klymenko has estimated economic losses, identified trends, on which depends the activity of Russian “supervisors”.
In the second half of September and in the second half of October, there were noticeable decreases in the rates of detention of ships. These were probably the consequences of the activity of Ukraine, the media abroad, and official statements and actions by the US and the EU. From the first days of October, the trends resumed and significantly increased, but in the second half of the month, they weakened again. In September, the area of detention of ships at sea during the movement shifted 30 miles (50 km) south, closer to the annexed Crimea, because of the appearance in the Sea of Azov of new artillery boats of the Ukrainian Navy. October 1-20, 22-31, there were no detentions in the middle of the sea at all (the factor of the Navy’s ships and exercises).
“There are three stages at which the ships going to Mariupol or Berdyansk are stopped,” Andrii Klymenko said in the materials provided for Opinion. “First, they are waiting for permission to pass the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov. The Kerch Strait is a one-way street: if there is a caravan to the Black Sea, then everyone, who needs to go to the Sea of Azov is waiting. Stage number two ‒ detention at sea. Next, the vessel takes the goods in Berdyansk or Mariupol and go to destination, mainly to the EU. There are “lucky ones”, who are stopped to check for the second time, already on the way back, with a load. Finally, the ship with the cargo enters the stage number three ‒ anchorage in the Sea of Azov before obtaining permission to pass through the Kerch Strait to the Black Sea. And once again waiting for permission.
Since the first detention on May 17, more than one hundred detentions occurred at sea. But not all of them are stopped because of the winds, storms, fogs, squalls. For example, in August, a decrease in the rate was caused by stormy weather. On such days, small vessels of the Border Guard Service of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation cannot sail, but large cargo ships feel calm during a 2-3-point storm. Two-thirds of the detentions relate to ships with cargo on their way back ‒ this is how more damage is done to shipowners. The amount of loss depends on the characteristics of a vessel ‒ $5-$50 thousand per day.
“Detention also has a demonstration effect: they are designed to demoralize both our military and the local population, as well as to bring the crews of ships and their owners to the tantrums,” Andrii Klymenko said.
This can be used to provoke casus belli (a reason for war). And if the Russians want to create a casus belli, they will do it.
To clog the sea
Probable aggravation of the situation is not hidden in Russia. Member of the Committee on Defense and Security of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation Franz Klintsevich said: Moscow can completely close the Sea of Azov for Ukraine. And although Klintsevich is not a very influential figure in the Kremlin hierarchy, it’s worth listening to. It is not excluded that the proposal to “close the sea” is, in fact, the opinion of Putin, whose intentions are voiced by heralds.
“Russia has been trying to do this for a long time,” Roman Bessmertny is convinced. “And if it were not the position of Germany, France, the United States, the Russians would have taken such a step a long time ago. This is the first. The second: Ukraine behaves very passively in the matter of appeals to international maritime law, appeals to international bodies. The Kremlin appetites are growing from here. Obviously, it will try to bargain with European leaders and the United States in order to block the Azov.”
“The Russians control the Kerch Strait and can do it (close the sea ‒ author’s note),” Taras Chmut assured. “And we will not do anything militarily, but this will be a violation of the international maritime law and the 2003 Treaty on the Joint Use of the Sea of Azov. This is a legal and international plane. I don’t think they will do it, although they physically have opportunities for this.”
Ihor Romanenko does not rule out blocking of the sea by the Russians, although he is convinced that they will not dare to do this because of the threat of new sanctions: “And since after the so-called elections in the so-called republics (DPR and LPR ‒ author’s note), it is clear to the whole world that this is a violation of the Minsk agreements, if they take this step, it will lead to new economic losses. Ukraine will act asymmetrically, together with the allies. There are two directions ‒ military, but I don’t think that Ukraine will use it now, and the more likely one is military diplomatic. Most likely, there will be a question of blocking Russian ports in the Azov Sea, possibly in the Black Sea.”
The Facebook video from the Operational Command East mobile press group shows the strengthening of Ukrainian military power in the region. The message, in particular, says: “If an enemy landing force tries to land on the shores of the Sea of Azov, it is guaranteed to get “in the teeth”. The units of the Joint Operational Command East of the United Forces during strenuous exercises demonstrated how they are going to destroy enemy landing ships and protect the sea coast.”
Hope for International Courts
New economic sanctions will hurt the Russian economy painfully, but they are unlikely to force the Kremlin to abandon its intentions to continue the escalation of the conflict. Perhaps, the main way to solve the problem is still diplomatic. An important factor is the legislative. It is necessary not only to sue the Russians for specific cases of detention of ships but also to change the status of the Sea of Azov, although this process will be quite lengthy.
“The development of the events of recent days is flowing into the diplomatic plane,” Dmytro Tymchuk, a member of the Verkhovna Rada Parliamentary National Security and Defense Committee, told to Opinion. “There is the position of the EU, the United States about the aggressive actions of Russia in the Sea of Azov. At the same time, the Russian Federation is not only silent about this and is pursuing its own policy, which could lead to a situation on the use of weapons on both sides, they began to appeal to the fact that, according to bilateral agreements with Ukraine, that this is Russia’s inner sea, forgetting that it is Ukraine’s too. That is, that they do not exceed authority, delaying for a long time the vessels, going to the Ukrainian ports. We need to apply to international courts.”
“I think Kyiv is doing the right thing, because there is no point in responding with provocations to provocations, there are international courts, and Kyiv has a thousand per cent chance of winning them, because Russia violates all possible laws of maritime and international law,” Fedir Klymenko, chief editor of “Russian monitor” said to Opinion. “Kyiv has a very advantageous position, and one way or another, all these issues will be resolved in its favour. It will not be fast. The processes that Putin launched in 2014 will not be resolved quickly.”
The Foreign Ministry of Ukraine announced the preparation of a draft resolution on the militarization of the Black and Azov Seas by the Russian Federation. It should be considered in December at the UN General Assembly. The European Parliament condemned Russia’s actions in the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait, in particular, the construction of the Kerch Bridge. On October 25th, they adopted a resolution, calling for strengthening sanctions against the Russian Federation. In November, the Committee on Civil Measurement and Security of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly condemned the construction of the Kerch Bridge by the Russian Federation.
What to do with the Treaty of 2003, concluded after the conflict on the island of Tuzla? To denounce, to suspend? These subtleties are up to lawyers. Ukraine and Russia agreed then that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea does not extend to the Sea of Azov in an important part, because it is internal waters. Do not forget ‒ with the construction of the Kerch Bridge, the Russian Federation itself violated this agreement.
“We must inform the world that the Treaty of 2003 on the Sea of Azov is not valid, and therefore, we, in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, declare a 12-mile zone of Ukrainian territorial waters and ask to take this into account,” Andrii Klymenko said. “Then the commander-in-chief, the President of Ukraine, is obliged to give an order to the Armed Forces of Ukraine to secure this border. This is a complex and large question, but it needs to be done.”
Text by Viktor Tsvilikhovsky