Russia’s Blockade of Azov Sea Ports is a Problem. What’s the Solution?
2 July, 2018

In addition to the war in Ukraine’s east that has left over 10,000 dead, Russia is leading another war in its neighboring country. And this is all taking off near the Ukrainian coast of the Azov Sea. Despite the fact not a single drop of blood has been shed in this conflict, it could lead to serious unprecedented damage to Ukraine’s economy.

“[Russia’s] aim is to cut the sea lanes to Ukraine,” explains Oleksandr Khara, Deputy Chair at the Black Sea Institute of Strategic Studies. “Up to 80% of [Ukraine’s] exports go via the sea. It will damage Ukraine greatly if they succeed.”

According to Khara, the blockade of Ukraine’s Azov Sea ports started in April 2015 when the “illegal construction of the bridge along the Kerch Strait” began.

“From that time, [Russia has been] stopping [Ukrainian] vessels and closing the sea for any movements.”

Khara adds that Russia has also deployed several shallow gunboats, submarines, corvettes capable of “striking up to central Ukraine” and Kalibr missiles.

“They are threatening [Ukraine] by deploying these types of assault weapons,” he says.

READ MORE: Is Russia Annexing The Azov Sea?

According to the 2003 agreement signed between the Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s then-President Leonid Kuchma, both countries can use the Azov Sea freely. This same agreement, Khara says, allows Russia to position their vessels near the shore of Ukraine.

In Khara’s opinion, annulling this agreement is one of the keys to ensuring a resolution to the conflict. Highlighting that Russia understands force well, he adds that Ukraine also needs to enforce and better equip its navy.

But Russia’s actions are not just about the “passage of vessels,” Khara adds.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

“It's about undermining Ukrainian sovereignty, militarizing both [the Azov and the Black] seas, and then unfolding aggression in another direction.”

Hromadske spoke with Oleksandr Khara, the Deputy Chair at the Black Sea Institute of Strategic Studies, about the increasing tension between Ukraine and Russia over the Ukrainian coast of the Azov Sea.

What are the recent developments in this de-facto blockade of the Azov Sea? What are the most urgent things people should know?

First of all, I should say it's not an isolated incident. It's an unfolding aggression that we've seen in Crimea in 2014, and then in the Donbas. So the Russians are connecting the theaters of war in Donbas and Crimea by making this blockade of Ukrainian Azov Sea ports and stopping international vessels from shipping goods to and from Ukrainian cities. So we have almost 60 vessels stopped and searched by the FSB, Russia’s Security Service, on the grounds that they are preparing for the conduction of counter-terrorism operations. Everything began with the illegal building of the bridge along the Kerch Strait. From that time, they were stopping vessels, closing the sea for any movements. The blockade began in April, 2015. It caused huge damage to the ports of Mariupol, the turnover dropped 15% and to Berdyansk almost one third. The idea of the Russians is to threaten the international business from shipping goods to and from Ukraine in Azov ports.

How did the completed construction of the Kerch Bridge change the situation? We know that the bridge doesn’t allow for the bigger vessels go through.

Yes, Panamax vessels are unable to pass the Kerch Strait because of their height. It's up to 50 meters. The bridge is shorter than Panamax vessels to be able to pass through it. The Russians made it deliberately. On the one hand, the Kerch Strait is eight meters deep. It means not all vessels can pass this strait in general. If it's half loaded, it's possible to pass the strait, load in Mariupol and Berdyansk.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

One of the theses is that Russia can also use this to blackmail Ukraine, for instance, to provide Dnipro water to Crimea, or any other things to let Ukrainian vessels come. So can Russia, while keeping Crimea annexed, demand something from Ukraine?

Sure. We should consider this the next step of the militarization of the region. Because we have 40,000-strong military in Crimea, nuclear strike capable vessels in Crimea and other military equipment, now they're militarizing the Azov Sea. This is a major issue. During militarization they are causing difficulties for shipments because the east of Ukraine and especially Donetsk and Mykolayiv region depend on the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk, it means there will be economic damage to these cities and to these regions. It means that the populations will be unhappy with that, demand some action from the government in Kyiv, and the social and political situation will be destabilized. It's not just about the passage of the vessels, it's about undermining Ukrainian sovereignty, militarizing both seas, and then unfolding aggression in another direction.

How much can the Ukrainian government do in this situation and how much can be done on the international level? Because there is a general understanding that there is not that much the international community can do regarding anything connected to Crimea, so far, besides the sanctions.

First of all, the peace restraints, so we need to enforce our military guards and police forces in the Azov Sea and shore – I mean near Mariupol and Berdyansk – because it's the first line of defense. Second, we need to provide the military with the equipment they need to guard the shore, because now we have around 20 vessels there, and three times more Russia with greater firepower than we have.

Can you also clarify, what are the military battles that Russian can potentially use in Azov?

Our shore is not secure because the Russians have the military capabilities in Crimea, near Azov Sea, and certainly on mainland Russia. They can easily accumulate huge firepower on the Azov Sea. So, the vulnerability of assault from the sea and marines on these ports and lands, and it's difficult to defend given the lack of manpower on the ground.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

Do we see any other trends, particularly in the context of the military presence of Russia? Is anything changing, because the military power Russia used to have, it has. What are we observing in particular with regard to the military?

Well, since April, their presence in the Azov Sea, they brought several shallow gunboats, so they are threatening Ukraine by deploying these vessels. Certainly, they deployed more submarines, corvettes capable striking up to the middle of Ukraine, calibre missiles, we see they used them in Syria, they fired several missiles from the Caspian Sea towards the Mediterranean coast of Syria. So they are threatening by deploying these types of assault weapons to Ukraine. The issue that is so important is that it's not related to the Azov Sea but the Black Sea. We have oil derricks near Odessa, they were illegally seized by Russian special forces and kept, and now a couple of corvettes are guarding them, not making it possible for Ukraine to get them back. So it's not about the Azov Sea, it's the blockade around Ukraine, and the aim is to cut sea lanes to Ukraine, and up to 80% of our exports go via the sea. It would damage Ukraine greatly if they succeed, if there is no adequate reply from Kyiv and our international partners.

So what would be this adequate reply?

Well, first and foremost the Russians respect force, and that's why we need to have military strength in the navy. Secondly, there are several legal actions we could make. Firstly, we should cancel the agreement of the Azov Sea from 2003, which is making it possible from a legal point of view for the Russian military and civilian vessels to be on the shore of Ukraine. So we don't have a state border with Russia in the Azov Sea, in the Kerch Strait, and beyond the Black Sea in the mainland of Russia and Crimea. So we need to cancel this agreement. This will give us the other framework, the international sea convention that demands that other power to request the entrance and clearance of 24 nautical miles. Now the Russians cannot be on the shore of Ukraine. A third one according to the information available, the Ukrainian foreign ministry applied for the arbitrage for the high seas, they filed the case, so we will see some moment there. Certainly, it will take time to have this arbitrage decision. It could take a couple of years. What we've seen now, the Russians have begun to stop these vessels for a couple of hours, today one of the Turkish vessels has been kept for three and a half days, so the Russians are increasing tensions, they are escalating the situation, because there was no adequate response from the military side, from the bodyguards of Ukraine.

/By Nataliya Gumenyuk and Maria Romanenko