From Moscow’s point of view, its loss of control over much of the Black Sea littoral and ports as a result of the disintegration of the Soviet Union is a serious problem, one that Russian moves first in Abkhazia and then in Crimea were intended to help solve. Indeed, even before the Crimean annexation in 2014, Russian commentators talked about depriving Ukraine of its access to the sea by creating a new “Novorossiya” state that would extend to the borders of Moldova and possibly even include Transnistria (see EDM, May 27, 2014; September 2, 2014). Now, in the wake of Ukraine’s seizure of two vessels for violating its territorial waters (see below), Moscow officials are openly suggesting that the Russian Navy could limit or even block the transit of Ukrainian ships, civilian and military, through the Kerch Straits. This would effectively make the Sea of Azov an internal Russian waterway, something officials in Moscow had hinted at in the past, in discussions about the supposed need to defend President Vladimir Putin’s Crimea bridge from attack (see EDM, February 12, 2018).
Were Russian forces to introduce an inspection regime or even block the passage of Ukrainian ships through the Strait altogether, that would reduce Ukraine’s capacity to connect with the outside world, solidify Russian control over Crimea and Donbas, and give Moscow added leverage over Kyiv. As a result, what may appear to be of only marginal interest, is part of the Kremlin’s plan to weaken or even destroy Ukraine. It thus merits both the closest attention and a firm Western response, given what appears to be a carefully crafted campaign by Moscow to present what it is doing not as a power grab but rather as a reflection of its concern to ensure safety and security on the sea.
On March 25, the Ukrainian border guard service detained the Russian-flagged fishing vessel Nord, which was operating in Ukrainian waters, in the Sea of Azov. The boat, registered in Crimea, and its ten crew members were escorted to the Azov Sea port of Berdiansk (Dpsu.gov.ua, March 26). They are currently awaiting trial in Ukraine. Then, on April 10, Ukrainian authorities arrested a Russian dredger ship, temporarily docked in the Odessa-region port of Yuzhny, for allegedly carrying out illegal sand extraction works in occupied Crimea (TASS, April 10).
Following the detention of the Nord, Mikhail Nenashev, the head of the All-Russian Movement for the Support of the Fleet and a frequent bellwether of Moscow’s plans, said that “in order to stop piracy by the Banderite [sic] authorities of Ukraine, it is necessary to warn Kyiv that Russia has various instruments to oppose its actions.” Nenashev continued that Moscow “can, for example, limit the passage of Ukrainian ships through the Kerch Strait, especially since the Ukrainian side always has many problems with security on its aging ships. They objectively require heightened control, and, therefore, we have the opportunity to oppose the barbaric policy of the Kyiv authorities against our sailors” (RIA Novosti, Ruposters.ru, April 4).
He claimed that in the Nord case, the Ukrainian side “violated all norms of international law of the sea,” and, consequently, “they are in no way distinguishable from the Somali pirates” against whom the international community has united. Unless Kyiv backs down, releases the Russian ship, and commits to never do something like this again, Nenashev asserted, “I think military measures will be taken,” given that Russia has international law and practice on its side (RIA Novosti, April 4).
Senior Russian officials have echoed this line. Georgy Muradov, Putin’s presidential representative in Crimea, alleged that the detention of the Nord is illegal and that Moscow must take action in response. While the Russian foreign ministry has handed a note of protest to the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow (Krymr.com, April 5). Moreover, Ukrainian and Russian experts are clearly worried that the situation risks spiraling out of control. Moscow is exploiting the Nord case to militarize the situation in the Sea of Azov. But Kyiv shows no sign of backing down from its right to control its territorial waters. Moreover, the latter continues to object to Moscow’s actions, including the construction of the Kerch Bridge to Russian-occupied Crimea.
Aleksandr Musiyenko, who heads the Kyiv Center for Military-Legal Research, said that Moscow plans to increase its military presence in the sea not so much in response to the Nord case, although that is a good cover, but rather in order to be in a position to defend the Kerch Bridge against possible attack. “I think,” he noted, “Russia could dispatch light cutters for permanent basing in the Sea of Azov” because it cannot put larger vessels there given the height of the bridge. Such relatively small vessels, the Ukrainian expert argued, could be put out of commission easily by Ukrainian forces in the event of an open conflict (Krymr.com, April 5).
But there is another way in which these Russian ships may be used, one more threatening because it is less likely to attract international attention until it might be too late. Oleg Zhdanov, a retired Ukrainian colonel, suggested that Russia could use these ships in the Sea of Azov both to gather intelligence about Ukraine and to conduct diversionary actions against it. “Russia is taking control of the Sea of Azov de facto and seeking to make it an internal waterway.” If that effort remains unchallenged, it will not be long before Moscow seeks to impose transit charges and inspections for all ships passing through the Kerch Strait. That, Zhdanov pointed out, carries with it the risk of “military clashes” (Krymr.com, April 5).
Russian experts like Aleksandr Golts are also worried about clashes, but they argue that Kyiv sparked the crisis by seizing the Nord and that the Ukrainian authorities must back down before the situation deteriorates further. “Of course,” Golts said, Ukrainian actions have nothing to do with piracy despite Moscow’s claims; but Ukraine’s move in the current situation was “not the wisest step,” and the Sea of Azov now risks becoming the next flashpoint in the Russian-Ukrainian war (Krymr.com, April 5; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 12).