The Meaning of the Sea of Azov for Ukraine
1 December, 2018

Editor's Note: The following article was written by Captain Oleksandr Diakov of The Naval Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and is a part of the publication "Strategic Appraisal. Naval Forces of Ukraine. 2018."  It is reprinted with the authors' permission.

"Strategic Appraisal. Naval Forces of Ukraine. 2018" is prepared as a result of the Strategic Appraisal Seminar conducted in April 2018 by the Navy Headquarters of Ukraine and the U.S. Defense Governance and Management Team in the framework of the Navy Strategy 2035 project, with the financial support of the Swedish Armed Forces.


To understand the meaning of the Sea of Azov for Ukraine it is necessary not only to consider general information about the Sea of Azov, but also to analyze specific peculiarities of the “closed” naval operational zone, within which interests of Ukraine and Russia clash.

The Berdyansk Sea Trading Port in the Azov Sea on July 19, 2007. Photo credit: UNIAN

From the geographic point of view, the Sea of Azov is an internal sea of the Atlantic Ocean basin and is “the most continental” sea on the planet. To get to its waters it is necessary to pass a number of straits and seas. Basically, it is a semi-closed one and on the map looks like a large bay of the Black Sea connected by the Kerch Strait.

READ MORE: Is Russia Annexing The Azov Sea?​

From the international law point of view, the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait waters belong to jointly by Ukraine and the Russian Federation and according to the 2003 International Treaty, these waters have status of the “historically internal waters of the two states.”

Kerch Strait plays a separate role. Notoriously known former spit and currently an island – Tuzla became first open clash point between post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia as early as in 2003.

Problem Statement

Crimea annexation by Russia has aggravated unsolved between Ukraine and Russia issues in and outside Azov region.

READ MORE: How Russia Is Making Waves in the Azov Sea

First, it is lack of clarity on the maritime state border in the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait, as well as on procedure of its bilateral use.

Up until 2014, different options of possible border delimitation and demarcation were considered, according to the positions of the parties. Ukraine's position remains unchanged – between the countries there has been a border along the administrative border between the former Ukrainian SSR and the Russian SSR, so using the principle of “uti possidetis” based on the formula: “newly formed sovereign states should have the same borders that their preceding dependent area had before their independence”.

Ukraine's approach to the border in Kerch Strait also remains unchanged.

Russia's position envisaged drawing midline along the points equally distant from coastal lines and islands of both countries. Since 2014 and illegal annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin believes that recognition of Crimea as a constituent entity of the Federation automatically gives rights not only to the territory of the peninsula but also to the sea waters around it, including Kerch Strait. Although there were no official statements from Moscow, de-facto Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation fully controls it.

That is why the Kerch Bridge was built in a “hybrid” way, without any consultations and coordination with the Ukrainian party, so violating international regulations. The bridge for the Kremlin is not only logistics, but also a “hybrid” strategy instrument that allows limiting the freedom of navigation for Ukraine, and also according to the worst-case scenario – to block it.

At the same time, according to the bilateral Treaty signed in 2003, trade and naval vessels under the flags of Ukraine or the Russian Federation enjoy the freedom of navigation in the Sea of Azov.

READ MORE: Russia Fires on Ukrainian Ship in the Kerch Strait

The above mentioned together with the entire control over occupied Crimean Peninsula and Kerch Strait allows the ships of the Russian Federation Black Sea Fleet to act without any constrains in the areas close to the Ukraine’s coast.

Ukraine, in its turn, also uses its unalienable right to protect its national interests on the sea to full extent, which causes negative reaction of the Russian Federation. The evidence of the latter is the reaction to the legitimate actions of the State Border Service of Ukraine with regard to the arrest of fishing boat Nord under the Russian Federation flag (with Kerch as a port of registry). In addition, as intimidation and response measures there is a task force deployment for actions in the Sea of Azov, enhancing of sea and air intelligence, as well as stopping vessels that are going to the Ukrainian ports.

Generally, the Sea of Azov has serious transportation significance for both countries. The most developed ports include Ukrainian – Mariupol and Berdyansk; Russian – Taganrog and Rostov-on-Don. Special transportation role for Russia is played by Volgo-Donskiy Chanel that allows river-sea navigation from the Caspian Sea. It is not only regular shipping, but also transportation of newly built vessels (boats) from Zelenodolsk dockyards and assault boats from the Caspian Fleet. In addition, this is the only potential possibility for transit connection with blue waters for the Caspian region countries (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran).

Moreover, it is worth mentioning that the Sea of Azov has the shallowest sea in the world, which proves one of historical versions of its name “low sea”. The above mentioned excludes the possibility of the submarine use, but increases effectiveness of sea mine weapon use.

Next one. The Sea of Azov is “the freshest water” sea in the world. This is due to its isolation, shallowness and relatively high tides of such rivers as Don, Kuban, Yeya and Kalmius. Due to the low saltiness, the Sea of Azov freezes fast in winter.

By the amount of flora and fauna, the Sea of Azov is one of the most productive. Fish capacity in the Sea of Azov is 40 times higher than in the Black Sea and in 160 times higher than in the Mediterranean. Therefore, poaching is well developed from both sides.

In addition, coastline of the Sea of Azov is favorable for recreation and tourism.

READ MORE: Russia’s Blockade of Azov Sea Ports is a Problem. What’s the Solution?

Subsoil of the seabed has significant mineral resources, including sand, sea salt, magnesium and bromide in Sivash Lagoons, and most importantly – potential oil and gas resources.


However, the Sea of Azov bears some challenges:

  • Weather is often unforeseeable – storm is changing to calm sea all at once;

  • Significant visibility reduction due to frequent fogs is a typical phenomenon;

  • So called “Azov Sea storms”, especially in winter and autumn, pose significant danger for navigation. Short but high waves, vessel icing as well as surging are especially dangerous.

These factors make it difficult or even impossible to use ships, boats and UAVs, especially in coastal waters, and cause rather frequent vessel accidents and possible oil spill.

In the Sea of Azov, the main type of flow is clockwise circular flow. In hybrid war conditions it can be used by the adversary for the use of so called drifting mines. It is likely that Maritime Border Guard boat and fishing vessel tripped over such mine in 2015 near Mariupol port, as well as in 2014 there was an explosion of such mine near bulk cargo ship Nahodka. As a result, civil ship owners may opt out from entering the Sea of Azov ports.

A separate topic is specifics of Azov maritime operational zone in the winter season. Ice is formed every year. During mild winters, ice is observed only in estuaries, straits and bays. During cold winters, the Sea is coved with ice completely, and in coastal areas gets frozen along the full depth. Herewith, natural obstacles may be created – hummocks (up to 3 meters high), especially near Western and Southwestern coasts. Ice conditions may be used by the enemy to lift special operations teams or naval tactical assault forces over ice surface of the Northeastern part of the sea and along the Ukrainian coast. The most likely time is January- February.

Regular sea navigation is stopped during this time. Vessels navigate only along passages for ice convoys. Usually, one or two passages are created. This, in its turn, makes ships and boats activities impossible and, at the same time, may be used as an artificial barrier to move heavy equipment over ice surface.

On the coastline from Genichesk to Shyrokyne there are several amphibious accessible areas. In addition to assault landing using aboard means, administrative landing of assault forces in Berdyansk and Mariupol seaports is possible. Considering short distances between coasts, deployment of forces and assault operations may be rapid.

Main Response Directions

Naval Forces need:

As soon as possible:

  • Deploy boats in the Azov maritime operational area with the tasks: to control sea space; ensure freedom of trade navigation and its protection, including fishery, both in seawaters and through Kerch Strait;

  • Ensure defense of Berdyansk and Mariupol ports;

  • Develop capabilities of all types of intelligence and maritime domain awareness;

    Short term:

  • Complete creating conditions for boats and other units stationing (marines, coast artillery, radio technical and logistics);

  • Develop capabilities for mining and counter-mining operations;

    Middle term:

• Ensure deployment of coastal anti-ship missile complexes.