Russia’s Attack of Ukrainian Naval Ships in Black Sea: First Shots of Possible Winter War?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 168

Ukrainian service member on a naval vessel in the Sea of Azov (Source: BBC News)

On November 25, two Ukrainian gunboats, together with a tug, attempted to cross from the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov, where Ukraine controls two major port cities—Mariupol and Berdyansk. The Ukrainian convoy was stopped by Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Border Guard ships, even though both Moscow and Kyiv agree the Ukrainian vessels had the right to cross into the Azov Sea in accordance with a 2003 treaty that declared these waters a joint sovereignty “internal” waterway (see EDM, November 26, 28). Nevertheless, Moscow accused Kyiv of ignoring protocol in applying for passage. After a multi-hour standoff just outside the Kerch Strait, the Ukrainian convoy turned back to Odessa since the small shallow-water Gurza-M-class gunboats have a crew of only five and are limited to just five days of autonomous voyage. Yet, the Russian forces did not allow them to withdraw peacefully and attacked, purposefully ramming the tugboat and using live munitions after a demand to stop engines was ignored. The Berdyansk gunboat was hit multiple times by heavy machinegun fire and apparently by armor-piercing rockets fired from a Ka-52 helicopter gunship and an Su-30 jet. The Berdyansk’s crew was lucky to survive unscathed. The three Ukrainian ships surrendered and were boarded by Russian commandos. Twenty-four Ukrainian service members were apprehended and the ships impounded (Interfax, November 27;, November 29).

Gurza-Ms are river gunboats with some coastal sea operational capabilities. They have two gun turrets originally designed for a Ukrainian-made BM-3 armored vehicle. Moreover, these vessels are equipped with a 30-millimeter automatic gun, a grenade launcher and laser-guided Ukrainian-made Baryer-VK anti-tank missiles. The Gurza-M’s armor can withstand 7.62-mm bullets. Ukraine began building these gunships as a cheap alternative after 2014, when it lost almost its entire fleet during the annexation of Crimea. The Ukrainian Navy has already moved several Gurza-M boats to the Sea of Azov this year and announced plans to establish a military naval base in Berdyansk, citing increased Russian military threats (RIA Novosti, November 16). The passage of two more gunboats may have annoyed the Russians; but on their own, those two small craft could not have possibly flipped the balance of military power in the Sea of Azov. Still the Russian military went berserk, fired to kill, and captured ships that did not seem to pose any immediate threat.

Moscow accuses Kyiv of deliberately “provoking” a confrontation with Russia, adding that the European Union and the United States are guilty of “coordinating the provocation of a confrontation.” In a special statement, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned Ukraine and the West of “grave consequences” that may follow (, November 26). Ukrainians are seen in Moscow as proxies doing the bidding of their Western masters and “sponsors.” The Russian defense ministry’s (General Staff’s) threat assessment apparently implies that a future Ukrainian naval base in the Sea of Azov could eventually become a deployment point for Western—that is North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—ships and forces much better equipped than the small Gurza-M gunboats. Although, those Ukrainian vessels could still play a vital role in guarding this base against Russian commando infiltration. The Azov Sea is mostly extremely shallow: Russian submarines and warships of the Black Sea Fleet cannot operate there effectively, while the US and its allies have some modern well-armed warships capable of operating in the coastal littoral. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called on NATO to deploy forces to the Azov Sea to counter Russian aggression. The Kremlin insists this would be an extremely negative development (Interfax, November 29).

The fact that no NATO member is presently planning to send any ships to the Azov Sea—not even a short friendly visit—will hardly calm the Russian nightmare assessment of the West suddenly achieving naval superiority there. Russia has been constantly using the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait to move corvettes armed with long-range Kalibr cruise missiles (potentially nuclear tipped) from the Caspian Sea through the Volga, the Volga-Don channel, the Sea of Azov, the Kerch Strait, the Black Sea, the Bosporus, into the Mediterranean and then back again. These corvettes have been shooting Kalibr missiles at Syria from the Caspian and from the Mediterranean. To attack any other targets in the larger Middle East, the Russian corvettes may use the rear position in the Caspian; to go after targets in the West, a deployment in the Black Sea or Mediterranean is essential. A NATO-backed Ukrainian naval base in Berdyansk or Mariupol could thus seriously impede Russian naval operational plans, Moscow seems to believe.

The fear of a Western-led conspiracy against vital Russian interests in the Black and Azov seas may explain the extreme Russian reaction. The 24 Ukrainian service members were denied prisoner-of-war status, apprehended on criminal charges, and at least some of them reportedly moved to Moscow to the notorious FSB Lefortovo prison, apparently to be interrogated to seek evidence of a possible extended conspiracy (Interfax, November 29). US President Donald Trump has, in turn, canceled at short notice a preplanned meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Buenos Aires, at the G20 summit, because of the continued detention of the Ukrainian sailors and the Russian actions on November 25 (Interfax, November 29). This cancelation will be seen in Moscow as a nasty snub, but also possibly as additional conformation of a Western-led conspiracy surrounding the Azov Sea.

After the naval skirmish, Poroshenko, supported by a majority in the parliament declared 30 days of martial law in regions bordering Russia. Poroshenko, quoting Ukrainian military intelligence, insists martial law will allow the country to raise its battle readiness and prepare the nation to face a possible Russian invasion aimed at occupying the port cities of Mariupol and Berdyansk and removing Ukrainian forces from the Azov shoreline (, November 26). This threat assessment may be real: By pushing back the Ukrainian forces and, say, handing the Azov shoreline to the Russian-backed Donbas separatists, Moscow solves the alleged Sea of Azov vulnerability problem while, at the same time, possibly securing a land corridor from Russia to Crimea. The Russian military has announced a “division” of S-400 missiles has been urgently deployed at Dzhankoy, in northern Crimea—a strategically important crossroads, where the main rail and highway connecting Crimea with Moscow traverse the salty Sivash marshes that form the Western tip of the Sea of Azov. At present, opposite Dzhankoy, the Ukrainian border guards control the north end of the main bridges to Crimea at Chonhar (Interfax, November 29).