Russian activity in the Sea of Azov has been ramping up considerably in recent weeks. After the official opening of the Kerch Strait Bridge, on May 16 (see EDM, June 1), Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) started carrying out systematic boarding and inspections of vessels in the Sea of Azov traveling to and from the Ukrainian ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol (Mariupil). Some of these incidents (38 to date, as of May 17) occurred only 5–7 miles from the Ukrainian coast and lasted up to 8–10 hours before the vessels were allowed to depart on their way (Blackseanews.net, June 7). Moreover, Russian maritime security activities in the area have greatly lengthened the amount of time merchant vessels must wait before obtaining permission to pass through the Kerch Strait on their way to Mariupol and Berdyansk—this downtime can often last a day or more. In early June, the ship Selekta, which was traveling to Mariupol, had to wait 38 hours for permission to pass through the Strait (de facto controlled from both sides by Russia since the 2014 illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula). This vessel was then stopped again in the Sea of Azov by an FSB boat, boarded, and subjected to an inspection that lasted an additional three hours. Such delays and inspections only appear to impact vessels entering or leaving Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov (Dzerkalo Tyzhnya, June 9).
Russian naval forces as well as maritime assets of the FSB coast guard operating in the Sea of Azov have increased many-fold since earlier this year, and they continue to grow (Glavnoe.ua, June 6). Additions to the region have notably included artillery boats and small missile ships redeployed from the Caspian Flotilla (Hromadske Radio, June 5; see EDM, May 31). Indeed, the appearance, in the Sea of Azov, of two small missile ships armed with Kalibr long-range cruise missiles has tellingly boosted Moscow’s ability to rain high-precision strikes on the entire depth of the territory of Ukraine from two offshore operational zones simultaneously—on either side of the Kerch Strait (Topwar.ru, June 6). Moreover, the Russian Black Sea Fleet has dramatically augmented the number of its joint amphibious drills (TASS, March 21, 2017; Kafanews, March 20, 2017), including massive exercises involving aviation and air defense forces (Interfax, June 5, 2018).
Also notable has been the growth of Russian oceanographic fleet assets, with capabilities to conduct “hybrid” (“New Type”) naval operations (see EDM, January 23). These ostensibly civilian Russian vessels are manned, at least in part, by what might be termed “little blue sailors”—individuals who are not exactly uniformed personnel (Usni.org, December 2016). In addition to installing various oceanographic equipment in the area, including near underwater communications cables, their activities have been significant for the growing use of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) (Vesti, July 13, 2012; Sudostroenie, March 22, 2018; Azniirkh.ru, Ssc-ras.ru, accessed June 11, 2018). Currently these vessels are involved in complex oceanographic expeditions in the Sea of Azov (Azniirkh, accessed June 11).
Furthermore, Russian “hybrid” maritime activity in the Sea of Azov appears to involve the use of Electronic Warfare (EW). Andrii Klymenko, the head of the supervisory board of the non-governmental organization Foreign Affairs Maidan, noticed that, for several days in May–June 2018, the Automatic Identification System (AIS) for live tracking of maritime traffic appeared not to function over the main navigable areas of the Azov Sea (Facebook.com, June 3). One possible reason for this outage could have been a malfunction at the receiving station in Temryuk, Russia. However, there have been no Navigational Area (NAVAREA) warnings issued about repairs or an emergency situation at Temryuk station. Moreover, throughout the outages, the station remained color coded as “green” on the AIS online marine traffic maps, meaning it was in working condition. Yet, the station’s apparent temporary shutdown suggests the AIS outages were intended to hide Russian ship traffic. According to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS 74/88), such activities can be classified as a threat to navigation. Additionally, one year ago, AIS transponders of at least 20 vessels were affected by GPS spoofing attacks in the Black Sea, near the Russian coast—the likely targets of a Russian cyber weapon being tested (Newscientist.com, August 10, 2017).
Russia’s strategy in the Sea of Azov seems designed to take control of the waters all the way up to the Ukrainian coast line, thus putting pressure and additional costs on Ukraine-bound maritime shipping traffic. In fact, like a boa constrictor, it aims to economically strangle southeastern Ukraine’s industrial seaport areas and destabilize the social situation there. And the broader implications of this strategy become clear when lessons from the Crimea annexation are juxtaposed against evidence of Russia’s growing regional amphibious potential and the apparent directions of its offensive training drills. As such, it is important not to forget about Moscow’s naval probes in the Black Sea, testing Kyiv’s responses to its activities near Odesa and Snake Island (Dumskaya, June 7). In other words, the threat of a Russian amphibious operation to seize additional southeastern Ukrainian coastal territories is growing. And against the backdrop of water shortages in Crimea as well as other factors, it should not be ruled out that Moscow may still be contemplating wresting a land corridor to the peninsula (Apostrophe, June 7) or at least trying to force Kyiv to open Dnipro’s water supply to the occupied territory (Segodnya, June 2).
Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Olena Zerkal, commenting on the rising tensions in the Sea of Azov, noted, “Russia seeks various ways to provoke Ukraine to react to this or that situation in a way that […] will prevent consideration by the [United Nations] tribunal of the issue of Russia’s violation of our sovereign rights.” She stressed the need for a “peaceful and legal settlement,” which is “optimal and effective” (Dzerkalo Tyzhnya, June 9). However, historical experience shows that so-called “soft” power without “hard” power is rather impotent. Sudden crises require a rapid and comprehensive multi-dimensional assessment and response, particular under the conditions of “New Type” warfare. Undoubtedly, Moscow will continue to use “hybrid” forms and methods of warfare to achieve its goals, with the Crimean annexation serving as a useful blueprint (Obozrevatel, May, 26; Voice of America, June 1; Dzerkalo Tyzhnya, June 9).