The Russia-Ukraine Tanker Incident and Signs of a Looming Black Sea Crisis

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 112

The Nika Spirit/Neyma, held in custody by Ukrainian authorities since July 25 (Source: AFP)

A Russian commercial tanker named Nika Spirit entered the Ukrainian port of Izmail on July 24. However, using the EQUASIS international information system, Ukraine identified the cargo ship as the vessel (at that point named the Neyma) that had blocked the Kerch Strait on November 25, 2018. During that incident, three Ukrainian Navy ships with 24 crew members on board were engaged and captured by Russian security forces off the coast of occupied Crimea; three Ukrainian sailors were injured during the Russian attack (see EDM, November 26, 28, 2018). Following its arrival in Izmail, the Nika Spirit/Neyma was detained, on July 25, by the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) and the Military Prosecutor’s Office. The SSU allowed the cargo ship’s crew to return home after conducting investigative actions. The tanker itself has been admitted as evidence; and on July 29, it was arrested by verdict of the Prymorsky District Court of Odesa (Ukrinform, July 30, 2019).

The Russia-Ukraine tanker incident immediately became a leading story in Russian pro-government media, which has tended to emphasize three main narrative threads:

First, pro-Kremlin media has sought to sow doubts about whether the tanker’s crew could really be said to have actively provided “assistance” to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) border guards on November 25, since the vessel would not have had a choice about fulfilling the FSB’s orders. Consequently, the argument goes, Ukraine was not “justified” in detaining the ship and its purportedly innocent crew (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 25).

Second, the Russian coverage has referred to Ukraine’s actions as “provocative,” as directly argued, for instance, by Yury Shvytkin, the deputy head of the Russian State Duma’s (lower chamber of parliament) defense committee (RT, July 30). Likewise, Franz Klintsevich, a member of the Federation Council’s (upper chamber of the Russian parliament) committee on defense and security, warned, “Kyiv should not expect that the release of the Russian sailors from the tanker detained in Izmail will resolve the incident” (, July 26).

Third, the Russian media loyal to Moscow has openly called for retaliation. Dmitry Laru, a correspondent with the pro-government daily Izvestia, writes in his article, “Pirates of the Black Sea,” that, according to the Duma, “the detention of a Russian tanker by the Security Service of Ukraine is an attempt at blackmail seeking the return of the Ukrainian seamen [captured by Russia in November 2018—see above] on Kyiv’s terms” (Izvestia, July 25). Alexander Kots, author of the piece in Komsomolskaya Pravda, “How Will We Retaliate?” thinks that “Russia may toughen the rules dictating passage through the Kerch Strait for Ukrainian ships” (Komsomolskaya Pravda, July 25). Similarly, Russian military expert Oleg Zheltonozhko believes that “The situation between the two countries may escalate into a reciprocal seizure of vessels” (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 25).

It should be noted that long before the current row involving the Nika Spirit/Neyma, Moscow had announced that a number of maritime zones in the Black Sea would temporarily be rendered dangerous for shipping on account of Russian “missile and gunnery exercises” and “naval training.” The duration of these restrictions, which Moscow made via the international NAVAREA III navigation warning system, persisted through almost the whole of July. But immediately after the detention of the Russian cargo ship in Izmail, Moscow broadcasted new international warnings to mariners about “temporarily dangerous navigation” in five large maritime zones in the Black Sea. These latest restrictions are supposed to last until August 12–13. The total area in question measures 118,570 square kilometers, or over a quarter of the entire sea surface (Navareas,, July 27). And conspicuously, these restricted zones almost entirely overlap with recommended maritime shipping routes in the western, central and eastern parts of the Black Sea.

The indicated time period of the navigation restrictions coincides with large-scale exercises in the Russian Southern Military District (MD) that began on July 23 (Kavkazsky Uzel, July 24;, July 25). “Absolutely all military units of the District, including the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla, are involved” in these drills, the commander of the Southern MD noted (Kavkazsky Uzel, July 24). In addition to the naval components, the exercises feature troops of the 58th and 49th Army units; Russian military bases in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Armenia; more than 100 aircraft and helicopters, including notably from the 4th Air and Air-Defense Army; as well as more than 20 special forces groupings. From August 6 to 16, elements of these drills are being carried out in Crimea and over the Black and Caspian Seas (EADaily, July 29; Kafa News, July 31).

At the same time, the incident with the seized Russian tanker occurred days before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its regional partners launched the Agile Spirit 2019 military exercises in Georgia (July 27–August 9). These maneuvers involve more than 3,000 soldiers from 14 NATO member and partner countries, including Ukraine. The exercises aim to strengthen interoperability and training as well as improve the operational capabilities of its participants during the planning and execution of military operations in real time. The annual Agile Spirit drills, held in Georgia since 2011, are also meant to help promote stability and security across the Black Sea region (, August 1).

This background thus raises the question: why did Russia send an aging cargo ship (and particularly one that Kyiv has accused of violating international law during the November 25 naval skirmish in the Kerch Strait) into a Ukrainian port? Security experts associated with the online Ukrainian Military Portal argue that, “These actions should be considered another act of hybrid aggression at sea; probably the decision to move [the tanker] to Ukraine was made in order to provoke our state and may be part of a special operation” (Ukrianian Military Portal, July 26). And based on the experience from 2018 (UNIAN April 6, 2018; Ukraynska Pravda, November 28, 2018), it cannot be ruled out that Moscow will seek to exacerbate the maritime security situation by exploiting the hidden conditions created by the above-described actions. Given these circumstances, Lieutenant General Olexander Skypalsky, a former deputy head of the SSU (1997–1998 and 2006–2007), has been trying to draw public attention to signs of a looming “Russian offensive.” He has cautioned, “We are in a state of war. Nothing is impossible. The aggressor does not hide his goal to destroy our state. Listen to the statements of their politicians, deputies, etc. We need to be prepared, mobilized. We must constantly be ready to fight back” (Obozrevatel, July 25, 2019).