On 25 November, the Russian coast guard denied access to two Ukrainian armoured artillery boats and a tugboat on their pre-planned transit through the Kerch Strait to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. Russian forces reportedly assaulted the Ukrainian surface vessels, leaving the crew of 23 captive and 6 Ukrainian servicemen wounded. In the wake of the attack, Russia temporarily closed navigation to non-Russian traffic through the Strait, before reopening it on Monday.
This represents an escalation for Russia in the Sea of Azov, from air and sea provocations to direct military action against Ukrainian assets. It is the latest step in the Kremlin’s long-term efforts to destabilize Ukraine.
Military tension in the Sea of Azov has been slowly building since May, when the Kerch Strait bridge connecting the Russian mainland to Crimea was opened and the FSB stopped several Ukrainian fishing boats in the Black Sea.
It escalated over the summer, when Russian forces boarded and inspected non-Russian vessels crossing the strait, justified by Russia on the grounds of its ‘sovereign right for inland waters’. Ukraine, of course, refutes this claim.
Moscow has been inflicting economic pain on Ukraine in the Sea of Azov since its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Fishing and cargo shipments between Azov coastal cities and the rest of Ukraine – mostly coal and metallurgic and agricultural produce – have been strangled. The situation is affecting local economies along the coast and destabilizing the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk.
Putting military pressure on Ukrainian assets in the Sea of Azov contributes to the Kremlin’s long-term strategy of keeping Ukraine politically weak and divided, especially ahead of the March 2019 presidential elections. Provocations at sea help demoralize Ukrainian armed forces and the security establishment, who will be key constituents in next year’s electoral cycle.
A ‘Russian lake’
Recent developments are also part of the Kremlin’s wider strategy to turn the Black Sea into a ‘Russian lake’ under its military dominance as well as to consolidate the claim that Crimea is a constituent part of the territory of the Russian Federation. Construction of the Kerch Strait bridge, begun in 2016, represented an important step in the process of integrating the peninsula. Expanding naval capabilities in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk quickly followed suit. Since 2014, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has been upgraded and reequipped. Through this build-up, Russia is not just projecting power onto the sea but also its symbolic hold over Crimea.
Closing the strait to transit, even temporarily, further demonstrates Russia’s appropriation of the peninsula. Instead of pushing for a land corridor between mainland Russia and Crimea through Mariupol and occupied Donbas, Moscow has obtained an external maritime link between its Crimean military base of Sevastopol and the Novorossiysk facilities on the Black Sea.
Furthermore, the Sunday flareup aimed to deny Ukraine the ability to reinforce its own battle groupings in the Sea of Azov. Hampering access to Ukrainian naval assets is a convenient way to demonstrate that Ukraine is no longer welcome in the Sea of Azov and military reinforcements will not be tolerated.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s policy options are limited. In the direct aftermath of the attack, the Ukrainian parliament voted to impose a 30-day legal regime of martial law in the 10 regions bordering Russia, Crimea and the Sea of Azov. While martial law is unlikely to deter further Russian provocations, it will give Kyiv more expediency in military planning and operations.
The legal regime provides for restrictions of constitutional rights as well as the potential delay of elections. Part of the Ukrainian political establishment fear this will benefit president Petro Poroshenko ahead of the March 2019 polls and boost his public support. This will indeed be cause for concern if martial law is extended beyond the initial 30 days.
Still, this is a better option than withdrawing from the 2003 bilateral agreement with Russia on Cooperation in the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait. The agreement, still in place despite the annexation of Crimea, makes the Sea of Azov a shared body of water between Russia and Ukraine and clearly allows free use of the sea.
Unilaterally cancelling it would have unpalatable consequences for Kyiv because it would mean recognizing Moscow’s legal claim on Crimea and establishing a UN-sanctioned territorial sea regime. This would make the eventual reintegration of Crimea even harder.
Russia does not want to transform violent operations at sea into another land-based operation against Ukraine. The Kremlin is content with the status quo. If such incidents become routine in the Sea of Azov, the potential for errors and miscalculation on both sides rises.
However, Sunday’s flareup is a reminder that the war in Ukraine is far from over and that Russia is counting on Western complacency. So far, the Western response has been unanimous in its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But there are only limited options for pushing back – calling for Kyiv to demonstrate restraint and potentially imposing more sanctions against Russia.
The West has long given up on Crimea. The Sea of Azov seems to follow. While not caving in to the Kremlin’s demands over Ukraine, Western policymakers should seek to limit the risk of miscalculation and tactical errors there, not amplify them. Recent calls for a direct Western military presence at sea are ill-judged as they would embolden Moscow.
The military balance in the Sea of Azov is not in Ukraine’s favour. Despite US assistance, Ukrainian naval forces and patrolling capabilities do not represent a viable deterrent against Russian forces at sea. To guarantee some degree of access in a contested environment, Ukraine needs to increase its military footprint not just at sea but on land through coastal and air defence systems.
Mathieu Boulègue, Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.