UARU
How Russia Is Making Waves in the Azov Sea
15 October, 2018

Over the past few months, the Azov crisis has been one of the main topics in Ukrainian media and politics. Most assessments of the situation have been pessimistic. The most widespread statement has been: “We are losing Azov.” Hromadske traveled to Mariupol to find out what exactly is going on in the region and speak to those directly affected by Russia’s so-called blockade.

Escalations Timeline

In March, Ukrainian border guards detained a domestic fishing vessel “Nord” sailing under a Russian flag.

Since then, the situation in the Azov Sea has only been deteriorating. Two months after it, Russia seized two Ukrainian fishing boats: their fishermen were accused of poaching.  

The Russian Federation has been gradually building up its naval forces in the Azov water space. And according to the former deputy chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces General staff Igor Romanenko, they have already sent in 40 warships.

Russian border guards are now checking ships heading for Ukrainian ports more often. Experts say that some ships are checked several times in one journey.

Overall, Russian border guards have stopped and checked 148 merchant ships between April and September.

Since the bridge connecting the Russian Taman peninsula with annexed Crimea was built, the rate at which ships pass through the Kerch Strait has slowed down. And it’s not just the increasingly frequent inspections by the Russian border guard service causing this, but it’s also because large ships, like Panamax ships, are no longer able to pass through Azov as they are simply too tall.

Every day, up to 400 ships wait to be searched in Kerch. The Russian side has made two public announcements, calling the Ukrainian border guards pirates and justifying the actions of their security forces in those waters.  

The U.S. State Department has referred to Russia’s actions in Azov an attempt to destabilize Ukraine. America has also called on Russia to stop creating obstacles for international shipping in the Azov Sea.

Losses

According to the BBC, the so-called blockade has cost the Mariupol trade ports $5.1 million in January-February 2018 in comparison to the same period last year.

Andriy Leonidov, operations director at UkrTransAgro, in Mariupol, Donetsk region, Ukraine on September 15, 2018. Photo credit: Andriy Rogozin / HROMADSKE

The port in Berdyansk has experienced a shortfall of almost $2.8 million. The volume of export cargo, mainly of metallurgical products, from Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea has decreased by 10% this year. If, last year, 35% of all Ukrainian ferrous metal exports went through the Mariupol port, then in 2018, this figure has dropped to 27%

The Berdyansk port shares in metallurgical export have decreased from 3.35% to 1.35%. However, the volume of agricultural exports through the Azov ports has increased.  

Not as Bad as Expected?

Representatives from Mariupol companies that work with agricultural cargo say that they have not experienced any negative consequences from the “Azov crisis.” Moreover, they try to avoid using the word “blockade.”

“You can only conditionally call this a blockade,” says marine agent Oleksandr Myroshnichenko, whose company operates as a mediator between Ukrainian ports and shipowners working mainly with grain cargos. “There are certain conditions for passing through the Kerch Strait, which the Russian side has imposed. The ships are inspected. They can wait in the queue for inspections for between one to four days. But according to the State Border Service spokesperson Oleh Slobodyan, waiting to be searched at Kerch can even take a week. It depends on the number of ships and the weather conditions.”

The inspection itself takes between one and three hours, according to Myroshnichenko, depending on the size of the ship and the crew’s behaviour. He says that all this goes on without pressure or threats and that the Russian border guards are polite.

Ukrainian border guards have different thoughts on the matter. They say that the Russian side have recently been resorting to procedural violations, such as not handing over inspection documents to the captains. This appear to be doing this in order to avoid liability if the shipowners decide to make a claim against them. Some shipowners are anxious about this as the delays cost them in terms of fuel and crew salaries.

Cargo ships are being stopped for re-inspection by Russian border guards more and more frequently in the Azov Sea, says Andriy Leonidov, operations director at UkrTransAgro, a company that owns grain terminals in the Mariupol port:

“In addition to the inspections in the Kerch Strait, the FSB border police also stop ships in the waters of the Azov Sea, at the so-called Berdyansk turning circle. This takes another few hours as they check the ships’ cargo to be unloaded at our ports.”

Mariupol fishermen are now scared to fish outside the 20-mile zone where they're allowed to go -- they' fear being detained by Russian border guards. A fisherman poses in Mariupol, Donetsk region on September 15. Photo credit: Andriy Rogozin / HROMADSKE

However, he also believes it’s too early to talk about a real blockade. According to Leonidov, they were preparing for the worst at the start of the summer.

“For the this period, only one ship was not able be unloaded because of its size,” Leonidov says, adding that “We are compensating shipowners for delayed inspections by unloading them quicker.”

Neither Myroshnichenko nor Leonidov have noticed the Russian side artificially complicating the inspection procedure for ships entering Ukrainian ports. According to them, both Ukrainian and Russian ships have to wait in line for inspection. And the procedure takes roughly the same amount of time.

“I don’t think that the Russians’ goal is to suppress the Ukrainian market,” Myroshnichenko says. “This generally does not heavily influence the market nomenclature. The ships come in, unload, load as before. The process continues.”

Leonidov agrees with him:

“There is a certain amount of anxiety among shipowners, and we generally work as normal. As before, everything is shipped at a set time, according to the category and plans.”

The Mariupol fisherman now do not risk sailing further than the 20-mile coastal area, thanks to the actions of the Russian border guard, as they are afraid of being detained: “All seiners travel in a two-mile radius of the Berdyansk Spit.”

Approaching the Crimean coast is also dangerous. The Russians consider this their coastal area. Encounters with Russian border guards there is no longer limited to inspections. Both ships and crews have been detained for “illegal fishing.”

All of this, of course, affects the volume of fish caught. But this is not a critical issue yet. As several fishermen say, this has affected them less than the ecological situation in the area caused by dangerous emissions from Metinvest metallurgical combines.

However, the most Ukrainian experts see Russia’s presence in the Azov Sea as a threat to both security and the region’s economy.

Economics

The director of the Azov Development Agency Kostantin Batozsky believes that Ukrainian ports have been harmed, particularly due to the height restrictions. Since the construction of the Kerch Bridge, Panamax-class ships are no longer able to ship to Mariupol and Berdyansk ports.

“According to the Mariupol port’s calculations, they have counted around 140 boats, which would have come here under normal conditions and carried in 40 thousand tonnes of cargo and taken it to far off markets, like American, Asia and China,” Batozsky says.

He thinks that this has affected the work of the Mariupol metallurgical plants extremely negatively. The raw materials and products will have to be transported by rail, which will increase the costs.

What’s more, only 52 train pairs can travel along the only railway connecting Mariupol to the Ukrainian rail network, which limits the work of the plants.

Mariupol trade port on September 15, 2018. Photo credit: Andriy Rogozin / HROMADSKE

Batozsky thinks that Russia has only visually shown what it is capable of so far. And in the event of a real blockade, it will be very difficult for the Mariupol plants. Whether Russia will resort to this is up to the diplomatic and security efforts of Ukrainian officials. He believes that this situation would affect Berdyansk worse, as the port is the city’s main enterprise.

“If the situation worsens, these ports will not be able to develop, they won’t be able to diversify the range of goods. And this will be a huge problem for the whole region,” Batozsky says.

In his comment to Hromadske, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin stated that he thinks Russia is abusing the provisions set in the 2003 agreement between Ukraine and Russia. According to this agreement, the Azov Sea is recognized as internal waters of both states, and Ukraine and Russia have the right to control the waters of the Azov Sea.

Mariupol trade port on September 15, 2018. Photo credit: Andriy Rogozin / HROMADSKE

According to Klimkin, the Russian side is exercising its control in a way that makes it impossible for Ukraine’s boat traffic. The minister believes that these actions are part of a well-calculated strategy to pressure Ukraine into political concessions.  

Security

Ukrainian border guards observe 3-5 Russian military vessels per day while on patrol. This is more than last year.

The Russians have not resorted to provocations before. However, on August 13, Russian border guards approached a Ukrainian Sea Guard boat at a distance of 10 meters and made several dangerous maneuvers around it.

The Ukrainian border guards say these actions violate the International Rules for Preventing Collisions at Sea and called them provocations by Russians.

“This is the first case of Russian border guards openly allowing aggressive, demonstrative and dangerous actions on the Azov Sea regarding Ukrainian border guards,” says the spokesperson for the State Border Guard Service Oleh Slobodyan. He has no doubt that this was a deliberate provocation.

“It’s more than likely that the Russian Federation are, in this way, trying to show that they are the real alleged owners of the Azov Sea.”

These provocations were not successful and Ukrainian border guards did not retaliate. However, according to Slobodyan, in the future, Ukrainian border guards will be “ready to use all available forces and means to protect the integrity of the Ukrainian border.”

Slobodyan is certain that the situation in the Azov Sea is under control of the border guards. According to him, Ukrainian border guards have not witnessed any Russian military ships in the Azov waters. He doubts they ever will as the depth and current of the sea make it impossible for large ships to maneuver, rendering them useless here.  

At the beginning of September, the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council decided strengthen the country’s naval presence in Azov. A few days later, two armoured artillery ships were sent to Berdyansk.

According to the government web portal, Ukraine plans to create a naval base on the Azov coast by the end of the year.

The U.S. has also promised to help Ukraine protect the Azov Sea. The American government has already provided Ukraine with a maritime control station. And, according to the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker, U.S. support is not limited to that.

“We do not recognize Russia’s claim to the waters of the Azov Sea. We believe that the presence of Russian military there is a very aggressive and provocative step. And this is very concerning for us,” Volker told Hromadske.

Perspectives

What can Ukraine do to make sure it does not lose the Azov Sea and the sea routes through the Kerch Strait? Most experts believe increasing diplomatic pressure on Russia and strengthening military capabilities in the Azov region to be the solution.

Mariupol trade port on September 15, 2018. Photo credit: Andriy Rogozin / HROMADSKE

This is what the government also say.

“Firstly, we will gradually move ahead with our lawsuit against Russia within the framework of arbitration and the [United Nations] Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Klimkin said. “Secondly, together with the countries whose vessels need to go through the Kerch Strait, we are aiming to create a united front in reacting to Russia’s violations of the Sea Law. Thirdly, it’s the military component, of course. The solution doesn’t lie just in one area.”

Batozsky sees the solution in complete denunciation of the 2003 agreement on mutual use of the Azov Sea waters, as well as delimitation of the sea border in the shortest terms.

“Russia sees the Ukrainian border as something starting on the seashore and not within the waters,” he says. “We need to through all the delimitation procedures and involve the G7 states in this process. For all the big countries to recognize our border in the Azov Sea.”

Batozsky thinks that Ukraine shouldn’t recognize Russia’s control of the Kerch Strait because doing that would mean refusing Crimea.

“They will never recognize our territory, our borders. But this doesn’t mean that we can observe the situation quietly,” he said. “We need to actively stand by our position. Because today they capture the Azov Sea and tomorrow they can say that Odesa lies within their economic interests. How can we accept this? We need to fight. We’ve ought to fight.”

/By Konstantin Reutski and Andriy Rogozin

/Translated by Sofia Fedeczko