With the level of tensions between the Russian Federation and Ukraine over the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait at their highest level in years, European countries and institutions have been exhibiting mounting concerns and growing willingness to try to address this explosive situation. Notably, in October 2018, the European Parliament adopted the quite substantial Resolution 2870 “On the Situation in the Sea of Azov” (Europarl.europa.eu, October 25, 2018) The resolution not only condemns Russia’s months-long campaign to militarize this area and deliberately hamper maritime traffic to and from Ukraine’s Azov Sea ports, it also lists tangible measures to constrain Russia in this sea (see below). Raising the rhetorical pressure on Moscow, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Frederica Mogherini explicitly called the Black Sea a “European sea” (Eeas.europa.eu, October 23, 2018). And on December 13, a meeting of the EU’s top agenda-setting body, the European Council, discussed “the escalation at the Kerch Straits and the Azov Sea and Russia’s violations of international law” and called on Moscow to release the Ukrainian sailors it aggressively captured in a naval clash on November 25 (Consilium.europa.eu, December 13–14, 2018).
Now, with 2019 under way, Europe has been further stepping up its activities, including, importantly, visits by top officials, to address tensions in the Sea of Azov and to support Ukraine in this region:
First, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas traveled to Moscow, on January 18, to continue discussions of an idea to send German and French observers to the Kerch Strait (see EDM, January 21, 22, 24). However, it was clear from the very beginning that Russia is making a tactical move in order to divide the allies and encourage solutions intrinsically inimical to Ukraine’s interests.
Second, on January 24, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted Resolution 2259 on “The Escalation of Tensions around the Sea of Azov,” which stepped up international political pressure (Assembly.coe.int, January 24).
Third, on January 15, an EU diplomatic mission consisting of the ministers of foreign affairs of Estonia, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania arrived in Kyiv. The multilateral European delegation was planning to visit the Sea of Azov and observe the situation first hand. However, because of harsh weather conditions, they abandoned the idea of visiting the Ukrainian Azov coast (Pryazovia) cities of Mariupol and Berdyansk. Their helicopter was forced to land in Dnipro, and they ended up speaking with Pryazovian regional representatives via Skype (Segodnya.ua, January 15). Nevertheless, the next day, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin toured the frontline in Donbas with the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák (Сensor.net.ua, January 16).
Fourth, the foreign ministers of Czechia (the Czech Republic) and Denmark visited eastern Ukraine at the end of January, accompanied by Klimkin. The three ministers boarded a boat and observed the situation in the Ukrainian territorial waters. Klimkin stressed, “Today, the EU broke the Ukrainian ice” and Moscow suddenly halted its obstruction of Ukrainian vessels traveling in the Azov Sea (0629.com.ua, January 29). Moreover, Klimkin announced there would be more such observation missions. In turn, the two European officials declared, in a joint communiqué, that they would advocate for further EU sanctions against Russia, if the latter does not release the Ukrainian sailors in its custody (Mzv.cz, January 29).
Fifth, between January 27 and February 2, the European Commission carried out a fact-finding mission in Mariupol and Berdyansk, in line with Point 12 of the European Parliament’s Resolution 2870 (see above). The mission, headed by two Commission experts, was charged with assessing the economic and political situation in Pryazovia (Eeas.europa.eu January 25). One of the fact-finding mission’s leaders, Peter Wagner, represents a unique institution within the Commission—the Support Group for Ukraine (created in April 2014), which is tasked with elaborating the EU’s agenda vis-à-vis Ukraine. The European delegation met with local government officials as well as representatives of civil society, business and port administrations in Kyiv and eastern Ukraine.
The Commission’s findings in southeastern Ukraine will inform an upcoming (February 18) foreign ministerial meeting of the EU Council, which will discuss the prospects for further financial and technical assistance to Ukraine’s Pryazovia and Donbas regions. A primary issue will reportedly be transportation and logistics between the major regional cities around the Azov Sea as well as further links with metropolitan centers in central Ukraine, such as Zaporizhia. Notably, the EU mission observed the decrepit condition of the crucially important Zaporizhia–Mariupol highway (0629.com.ua, January 29). The same is true of the road from Berdyansk to Zaporizhia (Gorod-online.net, January 30). This issue has strategic importance, both militarily and economically. Interestingly, as the EU mission toured eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian Armed Forces conducted military drills in the Sea of Azov, including the use of MiG-29 and Su-25 jets (Mil.in.ua, January 28).
Since the beginning of 2019, Europe and the EU in particular have been stepping up their efforts to accord Ukraine with necessary financial and technical assistance with which to withstand Russian regional pressure. At this juncture, the European leadership recognizes that, following this year’s elections, the next European Parliament could feature many more deputies skeptical of providing assistance to Ukraine. Thus, with Russian aggression in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov on the one hand, and the possibility, starting this autumn, of a less pro-Kyiv European Parliament on the other hand, the EU has been racing to put in place some preventative policies.
The European Union’s role in the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict, though largely indirect, is nonetheless important and polyvalent—designed to boost the economic and social resilience of Ukrainian society against Moscow’s expansionism. As such, all the aforementioned official delegations and state visits to eastern Ukraine are not merely sporadic events. On the contrary, they represent a concatenation of European efforts to try to de-escalate the conflict as well as send a message to Moscow that Brussels has committed itself to increasing Europe’s presence in the region. Important, Brussels is imposing a systematic approach—not yet a strategy, but already a clear policy. Within this context, Mogherini’s phrase about the Black Sea being “European” makes more sense. And it represents an understanding of the deleterious effect that a previous lack of policy follow-through by the EU has had on the regional situation. Illustratively, Brussels introduced many promising initiatives in Crimea soon after the 2008 Georgian-Russian War but was then reluctant to implement them (Voxukraine.org, September 28, 2015). The current approach thus seeks to rectify that lingering weakness.