On November 26, a day after Russia attacked three small Ukrainian naval vessels attempting to pass through the Kerch Strait, German Chancellor Angela Merkel received official notification about this incident from Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko. In addition to sharing with Merkel the details of the act of aggression at sea, Poroshenko informed her of Kyiv’s response, including the introduction of Martial Law (Unn.com.ua, November 26, 2018).
Several days later, on November 29, Poroshenko declared, “Germany is one of our [Ukraine’s] closest allies and we hope that NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] countries are now ready to place warships in the Azov Sea to help Ukraine and provide security” (BBC–Ukrainian service, November 29, 2018). This approach looked reasonable in light of Moscow’s illegal activity limiting Western merchant vessels’ passage through the Kerch Strait, including months of unmotivated Russian boarding inspections (Blackseanews.net, July 10, 2018).
From the outset, however, observers noted that Poroshenko’s request for a Western naval presence in the Azov Sea would meet with stern pushback from Russia. It should be noted that Moscow can appeal to the “Agreement Between Ukraine and the Russian Federation on Cooperation in Use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait” (the so-called 2003 Agreement), according to which the Sea of Azov is determined to be “historically internal waters” of both states (Zakon.rada.gov.ua, April 20, 2004). As such, the agreement further stipulates that any warships of third states can access the waters only with express permission of both Russia and Ukraine.
However, this bilateral compact contradicts the internationally recognized right of freedom of navigation and was never registered with the United Nations (as all international treaties are supposed to). Furthermore, some Ukrainian experts believe Kyiv should denounce the 2003 Agreement because it no longer serves the country’s national interests (Eurointegration.com.ua, October 4, 2018, Gordonua, July 11, 2018, Day.kyiv.ua, September 25, 2018). Deputy Foreign Minister Olena Zerkal, however, disputes this contention: last autumn she told reporters that denouncing the 2003 Agreement would do nothing for Ukraine, while opening the door to new Russian territorial claims (Ukrinform, October 20, 2018).
Despite the inherent uncertainty in Ukraine’s maritime policy, the deployment of European Union or NATO warships (with Kyiv’s support) into the Sea of Azov to protect international shipping has a clear legal basis in provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (Un.org, accessed March 20, 2019). Specifically, UNCLOS includes internationally recognized mechanisms for protecting the freedom of navigation, with naval-civilian convoy formations allowed to protect civilian vessels. Such an accompaniment of merchant vessels by warships is not the same thing as the one-time inspection Russia has proposed instead. An UNCLOS-mandated convoy would be given legal right to perform maneuvers in the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov and not be restricted to only port or coastal inspections (Interfax, January 18).
The Western convoy to protect international shipping in the Kerch Strait and Azov Sea, ultimately never materialized. Reportedly, when meeting with United States Vice President Michael Pence at the Munich Security Conference last month (February 2019), Chancellor Merkel indicated “she was willing, in coordination with the French, to send a convoy through the [Kerch Strait] waterways as a one-time maneuver but Poroshenko said that wasn’t enough to solve his problem—he wants to ensure the strait is open permanently” (Bloomberg, March 7). The whole episode, raises at least three important lessons:
First, it is not possible to provide maritime security, achieve sea control or win naval battles using solely soft power. Security and defense policy must include a careful balance between soft and hard power tools—sometimes referred to as “smart power” (Thecipherbrief.com, March 17, 2017). The navy, as an instrument of a state’s hard power, is thus tasked with securing access to vital maritime areas, providing enduring physical presence, and protecting the state’s interests in these areas. A Western convoy maritime operation—well-prepared and diplomatically reinforced—would have been a step forward toward safeguarding the West’s and Ukraine’s interests in the Sea of Azov as well as stabilizing the situation there.
Second, as Lieutenant General Serhiy Naev, the Ukrainian joint forces commander, stressed, “When it comes to troops and weapons, the numerical advantage is on the side of the Russian army. Therefore, if full-scale aggression takes place, our success will depend not only on the combat resilience of our soldiers and officers, but also on the consolidation of Ukrainian people and the assistance of our allies and international partners, since this threat can only really be coped with through joint efforts” (Mil.gov.ua, March 16). In turn, unified efforts under an effective common maritime strategy is critical for Ukraine to be able to survive and deter Russia. Importantly, Ukraine’s open flanks and vulnerable choke points exist not only in the Sea of Azov, but in the northern part of the Black Sea as well. Kyiv, thus, needs to develop as soon as possible a comprehensive maritime strategy based on a common Western-Ukrainian professional vision—“professional vision” being the key phrase.
Third, after more than three months since the November 25 Kerch Strait incident, the 24 Ukrainian sailors who were captured by Russian forces remain in jail, inside Russia. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has recognized the detained Ukrainian sailors as prisoners of war, but Moscow does not confirm this status and has charged them with criminal acts under Russian law (Pravda.com.ua, March 14). Appeals and persuasion to bring these Ukrainian service members home have been entirely ineffective, to date. A much more proactive course of action by Kyiv, together with its strategic Western partners, utilizing various mechanisms of joint influence may be required to secure the sailors’ release.
Learning from these lessons may be crucial for Kyiv and Western capitals on both sides of Atlantic to avoid a “Ukrainian Pearl Harbor” as well as deter Moscow’s further westward encroachment beyond Donbas.