After the Annexation of Crimea, Russia now occupies the Sea of Azov

In the Sea of Azov, the tension between Ukraine and the Russian federation is mounting. Russia is increasing its military presence in the area and prevents free sailing in international waters. Ukraine is moving its navy into the area in order to ensure the safety of its shipping and to protect its ports. One such movement served as an excuse for a Russian attack. The international reaction to the incident has been insufficient and Kremlin´s aggressive foreign policy is paying off. The ripples of the incident might be felt across the whole Black Sea region.

On Sunday the 25th of November, Russian border service coast guards attacked Ukrainian navy vessels while they were passing through the Kerch Strait. Russian warship Don intentionally rammed a Ukrainian tugboat. After the clash, Ukrainian ships reversed course, intending to pull out of the Kerch Strait. The Russians opened fire on the Ukrainian ships in international waters and immobilized them. The Ukrainians did not fire back. Six Ukrainian sailors were wounded and the whole crew was captured. Video of the skirmish has been published on the internet by the Russian secret service FSB.

Russian politicians and media have interpreted the incident as a planned Ukrainian provocation, aimed at diverting public attention from problems on the domestic political scene. All 24 captured Ukrainian sailors were accused of an unlawful violation of the Russian territorial waters. However, according to a treaty signed by both countries in 2003, the Sea of Azov is defined as common Russo-Ukrainian waters. Unrestricted sailing of Ukrainian ships is also guaranteed by the international law. The Ukrainian navy was conducting a routine trip into their own ports and they notified the Kerch Transport Information Service in advance. The request remained unanswered, the only reaction was the subsequent aggression.

 

"Both sides of the conflict can exploit the incident to strengthen their position on the domestic scene."

 

The clash is a culmination of long-standing tension in the Sea of Azov. The Kerch Strait, a narrow strip of water between mainland Russia and the annexed Crimean Peninsula, is the only entry point to the Sea of Azov. The current treaties allow Russia to restrict shipping in the strait. The coast guard has been abusing its competence to check every passing ship for a long time. It is especially attentive when it comes to vessels sailing under the Ukrainian flag, which has a detrimental impact on Ukrainian transport through the Sea of Azov, which makes up about 80% of the country’s naval exports, and significantly limits the operation of the Mariupol and Berdyansk ports. These excessive checks have also been criticised by the European Parliament, which called them detrimental not just to Ukraine, but also to several other EU member states.

The Black Sea region holds incredible strategic significance for the Russian Federation. Through the control of the Crimean Peninsula, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, Russia gains a bridgehead for strengthening its influence in the whole area. It can close the Kerch Strait at will, cut off Ukrainian shipping and cause Ukraine significant economic damage. Russia also controls the access from the sea to the city of Mariupol, which is located just tens of kilometres away from the frontline between the Ukrainian forces and the pro-Russian separatists. Apart from that, Russia is also increasing its military presence in the Sea of Azov and modernizing its Black Sea fleet. This is a challenge to the largest NATO port in the Black Sea, located in the Romanian city of Constanța, just a few hours away from the Crimean Peninsula.

 

"Through the control of the Crimean Peninsula, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, Russia gains a bridgehead for strengthening its influence in the whole area."

 

Both sides of the conflict can exploit the incident to strengthen their position on the domestic scene. Putin’s popularity has plummeted in the recent months and the rhetoric focusing on the violation of Russian borders and Ukrainian provocationscan divert the attention of the public from domestic problems, such as the controversial pension reform or the drop in the Russian standard of living. Like his Russian counterpart, President Poroshenko is also not enjoying much popularity. Predictions for the March elections favour the former prime minister Julia Tymoshenko, placing Poroshenko around the fourth place. The Ukrainian opposition has expressed fears of interference with the presidential campaign after martial law has been declared. That is also why it forced the administration to shorten it to 30 days instead of 60. The emergency measures should thus not significantly influence the presidential race, which officially starts on 31st December. The elections are scheduled to occur on 31st March.

Nevertheless, it is somewhat strange that President Poroshenko chose to declare martial law at this particular time, given that he did not adopt such measures even when the heaviest fighting was raging in Eastern Ukraine. On the other hand, declaring martial law enables a partial mobilization of the armed forces to prevent a potential Russian attack. The fact that martial law is restricted only to the ten regions bordering Russia, Russian-occupied Transnistria and the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov highlights the defensive character of the measure.

 

"The Russian occupation and militarization of the Sea of Azov demands a sharp, timely and preferably united reaction from both the US and the European countries."

 

The recent incident in the Kerch Strait will likely not escalate, since neither of the sides is interested in a large-scale open confrontation. Given the weak reaction from the US, France, and Germany, restricted to stereotypical diplomatic proclamations, it is likely that Russia will continue in the war of attrition against Ukraine, keeping the conflict simmering. The Russian occupation and militarization of the Sea of Azov demands a sharp, timely and preferably united reaction from both the US and the European countries. Increasing sanctions and, especially, making sure they are obeyed more strictly should be the minimum reaction, which should follow the incident. If the West is not willing to support Ukraine militarily, sanctions are the only option to discourage the Kremlin from such undertakings in the future. Until then, Russia will keep on violating the treaties it signed up to, breaking international law, unlawfully blocking the access to international waters and continue in its aggression.

 

About author: Petr Fena

Partners

Tento web používá k analýze návštěvnosti soubory cookie. Používáním tohoto webu s tím souhlasíte. Další informace