Freedom of Navigation at Stake in Sea of Azov: Security Consequences for Ukraine and Wider Black Sea Region

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 158

(Source: Euromaidan Press)

Russia is continuing to implement its “boa constrictor strategy” in the Sea of Azov, aimed at strangling the economy of Ukraine’s littoral areas (see EDM, February 22, April 12, May 22, 31, June 11, 28). The overall situation has sharpened since this spring, when the Russian coast guard first began systematically boarding and carrying out purposefully time-consuming inspections of merchant vessels traveling to and from Ukraine’s Azov Sea ports. In the past six months, a total of 683 merchant vessels (, November 2) from 19 countries, including four Black Sea states (Bulgaria, Romania, Turley and Ukraine), have been targeted by this type of Russian activity (, July 10).

According to Volodymyr Omelyan, the Ukrainian minister of infrastructure, Russian harassment of Azov Sea shipping has already caused more than one billion hryvnas ($36 million) in losses for Ukraine’s economy (Ukrinform, October 26). In fact, this Russian activity specifically aims to destabilize the socio-economic situation in the major Ukrainian port cities of Mariupol and Berdyansk, which could be a preface to intensive “hybrid” or even large-scale military scenarios—akin to what took place in Crimea almost five years ago.

The Kremlin authorities argue that the Russian coast guard’s activities out at sea are being carried out in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But, in reality, Russia has been abusing both the letter and spirit of international maritime law. Only vessels directed to/from Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov are being inspected by Russian patrols. And such inspections continue to be unjustifiably long. For example, the delay in passage through the Kerch Strait by Canadian bulker Federal Nagara reached 282 hours; and Turkish vessel Kaleli Ana was held for 132 hours. Some boarding inspections take place only 3–5 miles from the Ukrainian coast—that is, well within Ukraine’s territorial waters, which, as recognized by international law, extend 12 nautical miles out from the coast (, August 2, October 22).

This Russian activity at sea is accompanied by Moscow’s disregard of the Ukrainian-Russian agreement on cooperation in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, signed in 2003—specifically, the provision on the joint delimitation of the Azov waters. Although having recently weighed the possibility of withdrawing from the bilateral agreement (see EDM, October 17), for now Ukrainian officials say they do not wish to abandon it (UNIAN, October 30). Nevertheless, the Russian side’s boldness in approaching the Ukrainian shore has disoriented Ukrainian naval and coast guard forces regarding how they should react to these provocations and how best to protect Ukraine’s national interests at sea.

The ongoing militarization of the Sea of Azov is becoming a serious issue as well, and it has already raised concerns among officials in the European Parliament (Ukrinform, October 23). To date, Moscow has deployed at least 120 different military and patrol ships to the Sea of Azov since April (Ukrainian Pravda, October 30). Moreover, those deployments should be considered in conjunction with the concentration of Russia’s joint military forces near Ukrainian borders, including land and amphibious troops, combat aviation and strictly offensive long-range missile carriers. From this, it is possible to reason that the Kremlin apparently has not given up on the idea of eventually trying to forcibly create a land corridor (across southeastern Ukraine) from Russia to Crimea (, October 30) and continues to use hybrid tactics to create favorable conditions for such an operation.

The same Kremlin approach based on force domination is obvious in the Black Sea as well. Notably, Moscow has created mobile anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) zones around occupied Ukrainian natural gas rigs located in the north part of the Black Sea. This has left only a narrow maritime passage between those A2/AD bubbles and Snake Island (Ukraine) for international navigation to/from the economically and strategically important Odesa-Mykolaiv-Kherson port hub (, August 23). No visible Russian naval activity has been reported inside this corridor yet; but the pattern of Russian behavior in the Sea of Azov points to the potential for looming threats ahead.

In the face of this dangerous Russian activity in the maritime domain, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has instructed the government to speed up preparations for a new maritime doctrine (Ukrinform, September 6) as well as to reinforce Ukraine’s own naval presence in the Sea of Azov and to build up urgently needed naval infrastructure there (, September 7). And more recently, the European Parliament called on the European Union to toughen Russia sanctions if the situation in the Azov Sea escalates further (UNIAN, October 25).

Ukraine’s agricultural and industrial sectors are linked by sea to more than 120 countries around the world (Antikor, January 2018). Thus, Russia’s “hybrid” strategy to turn the Sea of Azov into an “internal Russian lake” has the potential to seriously undermine not only the security situation in Ukraine but also in the broader Black Sea region and beyond. These Russian limitations on the freedom of navigation in the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait could easily and rapidly escalate into an open regional conflict. Measures taken in the earliest stages of a crisis tend to be most effective at preventing its further escalation. Yet, Black Sea states have so far not come together in formulating a common response to address the worsening maritime security situation in their region.

Meanwhile, Kyiv’s two most important priorities to address this threat are arguably to quickly approve an updated maritime doctrine and naval strategy as well as to take steps to build up a “mosquito fleet” (see EDM, March 9, 2017) capable of defending the freedom of navigation in the Black and Azov Seas. As such, collaboration with the United States on the procurement of Island-class cutters as well as Mark V and Mark VI fast combat boats could be essential as Kyiv strives to reestablish sovereign control over its littoral waters and seeks to prevent open conflict at sea with its aggressive eastern neighbor.