Last month (April 2018), Ukrainian Deputy Infrastructure Minister Yury Lavrenyuk appealed to the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine to prohibit Russian vessels from entering Ukraine’s domestic waterways because of the high terrorist threat level they allegedly pose (Mtu.gov.ua, April 23). The Russian reaction was immediate, dismissive and alarmist (see EDM, May 1).
According to Igor Shishkin, the deputy director of the Institute of CIS Countries, Ukraine’s declaration of a river blockade is a serious step and should not be mocked. “Few of our vessels use the Dnieper, for example. But, there is one [waterway] that is very significant for Russia. I mean the Danube–Black Sea channel, passing through Ukrainian territory. Our vessels use it,” he said (RIA Novosti, April 25). Officially this channel is called the deep water fairway (DWF) “Danube–Black Sea” (Gsh.delta-pilot.ua, accessed May 25). It traverses Ukrainian Bessarabia and has a strategically located entryway at the Girlo Bystre mouth of the Danube River delta. Up to 1,400–1,500 vessels pass through this Ukrainian waterway annually (Cfts.org.ua, June 25, 2012); and approximately 20 percent of them are Russian or carry Russian cargo. The DWF’s closure would critically influence Russia’s coal deliveries to Romania and Serbia as well as shipments of fertilizer to Serbia, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia (Uaprom.info, May, 11, 2015). Historically, numerous battles were waged for control of Ukrainian Bessarabia because of this area’s strategically important connection with the Black Sea in the south, the Danube River in the west and the Belgorod–Dniester Liman (Estuary) in the east. Not by chance, the DWF was included in the European Agreement on Main Inland Waterways of International Importance (AGN) (Eurointegration.com.ua, June 14, 2017).
Russian presence in the Bug–Dnipro Liman channel is worth highlighting as well. Russian vessels continue to use the Southern Bug and Dnieper rivers ports for delivery of oil products and transshipment of other goods (Ships.com.ua). Some of these ships illegally visited the river port of Mykolaiv (on the Southern Bug River) in 2017 (Nikvesti, June 23, 2017).
Moscow contends that continued Russian use of Ukraine’s inland waters is in Ukrainian citizens’ interest (Politexpert, April 24). But in fact, the daily Russian commercial activity along these inland maritime arteries is not oriented toward Ukraine. Were Ukraine to actually block Russian access to the DWF, the Romanian Danube Delta Channel via the Sulina Girlo would still continue to be an option for Europe-bound Russian merchant vessels. In other words, something beyond economic considerations explains Russia’s insistence on maintaining its presence in this Ukrainian riverine channel. This is perhaps why, just a week after Deputy Minister Lavrenyuk’s remarks, Russia began its “get-tough policy of detentions and inspections of merchant vessels” traveling to and from Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov (Krym Realiyi, May 3, Zaxid.net, May 3). A Ukrainian fishing ship was arrested by Russian state border control in the Black Sea as well (Censor.net, May 4). Simultaneously, the Russian Federal Security Service carried out offshore drills in the Sea of Azov, focused “on combating marine threats.” In these exercises, Russian border guards practiced the release of a “captured” fishing vessel and “hostages” as well as the simulated neutralization of pirates or terrorists. The Russian side did not shy away from labeling as “piracy” the Ukrainian border guard service’s earlier seizure of the Crimean fishing vessel Nord, which had strayed into Ukrainian territorial waters (RIA Novosti, May 7; see EDM, April 12). No doubt, Moscow’s implicit goal behind such active “countermeasures” is to restrain Kyiv from its decision to block Russian traffic through Ukrainian inland waters and limit Ukraine’s maritime activities in the Sea of Azov.
According to Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Russia is challenging the current security order by using a “mixture of military and non-military means of aggression, a combination of covert and overt operations and measures” to achieve its political ends (Nato.int, October 2, 2017). Indeed, Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 showed that merchant vessels could be used by Russia not only for the transshipment of goods, but also “little green men” and other camouflaged invasive forces. In this regard, Lavrenyuk’s reference to a terrorist threat appears sensible.
Russia’s seeming fixation on retaining access to Ukrainian inland waters, particularly the DWF, is worth taking seriously. Russian “hybrid” activities using merchant vessels certainly cannot be excluded, which implies that Ukrainian internal waterways should perhaps be added to the existing list of Ukraine’s maritime choke points (including the Kerch Strait and the Odesa port-hub approaches). Boris Babyn, the representative of the president of Ukraine in Crimea (he is, naturally, based outside the occupied peninsula), has recognized that the “situation whereby Ukrainian [government] structures retain a blind eye to actual conflict at sea due to [the preoccupation with] the annexation of Crimea cannot last forever. The logic of events suggests that escalation is inevitable.” In his opinion, Ukraine should strengthen its position at sea in order to be able to protect its sailors with weapons. A corresponding action plan is already being prepared, he added (Krym Realiyi, May 8).
Accordingly, at least two aspects of this official’s words deserve further elaboration. First, Ukraine urgently needs a balanced maritime policy and naval strategy as well as mosquito fleet capabilities to adequately respond to threats at sea and along inland rivers (see EDM, March 9, 2017). However, little has been done in this sphere for the last four years. Second, to be able to respond to such threats, Ukrainian naval ships and boats will need to be present not only in Odesa and around the maritime approaches to Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, but also in the Sea of Azov and in the Dnieper and Danube rivers. The two Island-class cutters that the United States had offered to Ukraine could greatly help Ukrainian Naval Forces fulfill these maritime missions (see EDM, November 1, 2017). But ultimately, the implementation of this project as well as other steps to boost the country’s naval capabilities fully depend on Kyiv.