In response to Moscow’s threat to bottle up Ukrainian shipping within the shared Azov Sea, the Ukrainian government is currently considering a plan to block Russia’s use of the Danube River. Ukraine’s infrastructure ministry has proposed closing to all Russian shipping the canal in the extreme southeast border region of Ukraine, which vessels use to pass the Danube delta, from the Black Sea to the upstream Danube proper. Such an action would affect relatively small numbers of ships. Nonetheless, Russian officials are clearly worried it could reduce their ability to supply countries in the Balkans. At present, however, the possibility of such a ban is only a threat. And it is likely part of a complex implicit negotiation between Kyiv and Moscow about free passage through the Kerch Strait, across which Russia is building a bridge to occupied Crimea (see EDM, February 12, 22), and about the use of ports in that occupied Ukrainian peninsula by Russian shipping.
Last week (April 23), Yury Lavrenyuk, Ukraine’s deputy infrastructure minister, announced that his agency had “appealed to the National Security and Defense Council regarding the prohibition of the entrance of Russian ships into the domestic waterways of Ukraine because of the high level of terrorist threats” such ships allegedly present. Allowing such ships to pass, he said “is impermissible” because there is “critical infrastructure” along such waterways. His words drew support from other Ukrainian ministries and agencies (Mtu.gov.ua, April 23).
The Russian reaction was immediate and simultaneously dismissive and alarmist (TASS, April 23; Stoletie.ru, Kommersant, Riafan.ru, April 24). On the one hand, Russian commentators pointed out that, at present, Moscow uses only one “international waterway” in Ukraine—the Danube canal—and does so with decreasing frequency, preferring alternative shipping routes because this passageway cannot handle vessels that draw more than five meters. Moreover, they suggested, Kyiv will find it difficult to impose this restriction because of existing international law governing such waterways—law that in this case goes back more than a century. Moreover, Ukraine will probably come under pressure from its Western allies not to take such an action. Indeed, some in Moscow asserted this latest threat by Kyiv could be a straw that breaks the camel’s back as far as Western backing of Ukraine is concerned.
But on the other hand, Moscow officials and commentators are clearly worried about the way in which such a ban—even if it is never, in fact, imposed—could become part of future negotiations between Moscow, Kyiv and the West. Specifically, they warn the Danube canal restriction might be used as leverage to ensure free access to the Sea of Azov, via the Kerch Strait, for Ukrainian and other shipping. Additionally, it could be used to pressure Russia into accepting Ukraine’s right to enforce its laws in coastal waters, as it did recently in the Nord case, when it seized a Russian ship and arrested its crew—an action some in the Russian government want to classify as an act of piracy (see EDM, April 12). At the very least, Kyiv’s threat gives the Ukrainian side another means of striking back at the Russian invaders and winning support for its legal position (RIA Novosti), April 28).
That the threat to close the Danube to Russian shipping is linked to the Kerch Strait issue was suggested by Ukrainian Deputy Minister Lavenyuk himself. “The bridge across the Kerch Strait,” he said, in making the proposal about the Danube canal, “is leading to a significant decline in shipping at the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk [on the Azov Sea],” and that is having a negative impact on the economy and hence political stability in those areas (Mtu.gov.ua, April 23).
Some Russian companies are already making plans to shift their shipping away from the Danube lest their vessels be blocked or even seized, Lyudmila Nikolayeva of Svobodnya Pressa reports (Svobodnya Pressa, April 25). Indeed, she writes, Russian companies say they have other and cheaper routes to ship to the Balkans. And yet, the fact that they have been continuing to use the Danube canal through Ukrainian territory up to now argues against such claims.
Russian experts told Nikolayeva that Ukraine might have been able to inflict far more damage on Russian shipping if it had not suspended at the time of the EuroMaidan a project for widening and deepening the canal to allow it to handle more shipping in larger vessels. That failure, they said, has already cost Ukraine friends in the region and decreased profits from shipping. The Russians blame this Ukrainian suspension on the Ukrainian revolution; but in fact, it reflects Kyiv’s need to redirect resources away from such civilian projects to military ones to defend Ukraine against continuing Russian aggression.
Reportedly, Russian legal specialists are currently preparing to appeal to international organizations if Kyiv does block Russian shipping on the Danube. Most expect Moscow to win such cases easily, but Gennady Kotov, a professor of law at the State University for the Naval and River Fleet, is more skeptical. Not only will such cases take a long time before they are resolved, with Russia being the loser in the meantime, but it is possible that international bodies will side with Ukraine against Russia in this case. Consequently, he urged, Moscow should plan on more effective counter-measures, including imposing additional restrictions on Ukrainian shipping in the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov (Svobodnya Pressa, April 25).
That threat may be enough to stay Kyiv’s hand for now. But if Ukraine does go ahead with a ban on Russian shipping on the Danube, it could trigger a far more dangerous situation on the Black Sea littoral, one that would likely involve not only Ukraine and Russia but Ukraine’s Western partners as well.