Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an official visit to the southeastern coastal oblast of Zaporizhzhia, on April 11. During his trip, local officials familiarized the commander-in-chief with the operational situation in the Sea of Azov. Additionally, Zelenskyy visited the port of Berdyansk, located in close proximity to the Russian coast and only 67 kilometers (across the sea) from the village of Dolzhanskaya, in Russia’s Krasnodar Krai (Kommersant, April 12).
Due to its important geostrategic location, Berdyansk was chosen as the site for the Ukrainian Naval Forces’ new naval base “East.” The eastern branch of Ukraine’s navy is presently based in Mykolaiv (upriver of the Black Sea coast and northwest of the occupied Crimean peninsula); but it is expected to be redeployed to Berdyansk in the near future in order to protect Ukrainian civil and military navigation in the Azov Sea from Russian impediment. During 2020–2021, Ukraine plans to revitalize a number of old infrastructure objects on the territory of the Berdyansk Sea Commercial Port (those objects will be transferred to the Naval Forces) as well as build new facilities, including new wharfs and residential buildings for military personnel. According to Zelenskyy, it is essential for the country to have locally based ships that will protect Ukrainian ports and trade routes on the Azov Sea (President.gov.ua, April 11). The issue is crucial for both security as well as economic considerations. In his statement, the president reassured that all necessary funds for re-equipping the port—approximately 553 million hryvnias ($20 million)—will be allocated in full (Brd24.com, April 11).
Plans to build a new Azov Sea naval base in Berdyansk were initiated during the presidency of Petro Poroshenko, originally motivated by Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. However, more urgent problems associated with Russian aggression in Donbas—quickly characterized by artillery barrages, armored ground assaults and finally positional trench warfare—derailed and delayed the creation of a naval grouping in the Azov basin. In August 2016, the commander of the Ukrainian Naval Forces, Vice Admiral Ihor Voronchenko, visited Berdyansk and re-examined the possibility of building a new naval base there. At that time, only a Ukrainian Marine Corps Battalion was stationed in the port city. The vice admiral was satisfied with the bay area and the site for the future base. During his stay in Berdyansk, Voronchenko met with the rector of the Berdyansk State University and agreed with him on the possibility of opening a Department of Military Training for preparing navy officers at the university (Ukrmilitary.com, August 21, 2016). A naval Recruitment Center was opened there one month later (another two were opened in Odesa and Mykolaiv). Such centers play an important role in bringing in quality personnel to man military vessels, marine units, special forces detachments, as well as aviation, communications and artillery units (Ukrmilitary.com, September 17, 2016).
In 2018, Following Russia’s active efforts to de facto turn the Azov into its internal sea (see EDM, February 22, April 12, May 22, 31, June 11, 28, November 6, 26, 28, 29, December 3, 2018), the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (NSDC) tasked the Cabinet of Ministers with adopting a Maritime Doctrine and with improving the regulatory framework for protecting national interests in the waters of the Black and Azov seas (Inforesist.org, September 6, 2018). Among the solutions was the creation of a Naval Forces ship-boat grouping in the Azov Sea. According to the new Doctrine, which was approved on December 18, 2018, Ukraine’s extensive sea coast (2,759.2 kilometers—the longest of any Azov–Black Sea littoral country) and large exclusive economic zone (more than 72,000 square kilometers) are of both strategic-defense and economic importance, thus necessitating their effective protection. Additionally, Ukraine has the most powerful port potential among all Black Sea states, with 13 commercial seaports operating on the Black and Azov seas that have a combined mooring length of about 40 kilometers. Ukrainian ports connect the country’s transportation and industrial infrastructure with the whole world (Zakon.rada.gov.ua, December 18, 2018).
In 2014, the Ukrainian navy lost more than 80 percent of its total assets and capabilities. Apart from that, Russia increased its military buildup in the Sea of Azov and, by utilizing various “hybrid” tactics, has been gradually bringing the sea under its unilateral control. For example, transit through the Kerch Strait for Ukrainian ships became a problem over the past several years. Russia artificially increased the average duration vessels must wait to pass through the strait, from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov and in the opposite direction, causing massive economic loses (see EDM, January 30, 2019 and February 12, 2019). In March 2020, the average wait time for ships passing north via the Kerch Strait was 31 hours, and in the opposite direction—34.7 hours. In 2018, it was only five to six hours (Kommersant, April 12). Navigation disruptions in the Sea of Azov may easily result in work interruptions at the economically vital metallurgical enterprises of Mariupol. Many military experts, including Dmytro Snihirov, believe that Russia’s main task in the Azov Sea is to apply overwhelming economic pressure on Ukraine and effectively transform the body of water into an internal Russian lake (Inforesist.org, August 14, 2018).
Since Ukraine previously only had a maritime border detachment in the Sea of Azov (two ships and several combat boats), the creation of a new naval base in Berdyansk will finally address the glaring military and economic security gaps along the country’s southeastern coast. The base will become a permanent location for several units of coastal artillery and a number of divisions of artillery boats. According to Commander Voronchenko, an initial division currently consists of the rescue vessel Donbas (A500), the sea tug Korets (A830) and two small armored artillery boats, the R177 Kremenchuk and the R178 Lubny. It is expected that the Gyurza-M class patrol boats P-175 Berdyansk and P-176 Nikopol, captured by Russia during the Kerch Strait incident in November 2018, together with the seagoing tug A947 Jani Kapu will (after maintenance checkups and repairs) also join the naval base “East” (Depo.ua, March 20).
The deployment of a new Ukrainian naval base in the Sea of Azov may, of course, motivate an asymmetric response from the Russian side. But Ukraine has no other choice: Moscow’s aggressive and “hybrid” actions in the region have forced Kyiv to strengthen its own military position in the Azov Sea.