On November 25, the Russian Coast Guard ship Don rammed a Ukrainian tugboat, damaging the latter vessel’s main engine. The attack occurred while two Ukrainian small-sized armored artillery boats, the Berdyansk and Nikopol, and the tugboat Yany Kapu were being transferred from the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odesa to Mariupol, in the Azov Sea, according to the Ukrainian Navy (Kyiv Post, November 25).
Subsequently, Russia blocked the passage through the Kerch Strait beneath the newly built Kerch Bridge, and the Russian Coast Guard fired on a group of Ukrainian Navy ships as they were leaving the strait, wounding at least six sailors (UNIAN, Facebook.com/navy.mil.gov.ua, November 25). Reportedly, Russia forcibly seized several of the Ukrainian vessels in the strait, leading to tense protests in Kyiv (Kyiv Post, November 26).
The following day, an emergency meeting of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine adopted the introduction of martial law (Kyiv Post, November 26), which was subsequently approved by Parliament.
The November 25 incidents represent the first time, since the start of Russia’s “hybrid” war against Ukraine in 2014, that the Russian military has carried out an unmistakably open attack against Ukrainian forces.
Accelerated deployments of Russian naval forces from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Azov and a general military build-up in the region since this past spring have been turning the Azov Sea into a “Russian lake,” which carries profound strategic and economic implications for Ukraine and beyond. The Mariupol and Berdyansk ports on the Azov coast are key gates for exports of Ukrainian metallurgical products and grain. And since the annexation of Crimea, they have been handling 80 percent of all of Ukraine’s maritime exports (Europarl.europa.eu, October 22).
However, systematic Russian searches of vessels coming into and out of Ukrainian Azov ports have been causing dramatic delays and increased transportation costs (OstroV, October 1). Between July 1 and October 15, the direct losses to ship owners for having their vessels stopped by the Russian Coast Guard are estimated at $8.834 million, with total due delays in passage through the Kerch Strait amounting to 1,262 days (Facebook.com, October 21).
According to the intelligence agency of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, by the end of June Russia had deployed around 40 warships to the Azov Sea. This is probably not sufficient for Russia to mount a large-scale military operation in the region. Yet, it proved that Russia was building up strength to take control of all local civilian navigation routes and obstruct commercial shipping to the point where civilian companies would be likely to refuse servicing Ukrainian ports (Channel 5, June 27).
Such Russian activities have targeted not only Ukraine but other countries as well. Notably, around 120 European Union member-state vessels have been subjected to Russia’s inspection procedures in the Sea of Azov between April and October. In response, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning Russian actions and calling them “another dimension of Russia’s hybrid warfare.” The resolution adds, “Russia’s actions have led to further deterioration of the security situation in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and have significant implications for the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine” (Europarl.europa.eu, October 22).
According to expert Paul Goble, Russia’s show of force in and around the Azov Sea is, at the very least, intended to intimidate the Ukrainian military against possible attempts to liberate any of the occupied territories in the east. At worst, it could be a preparation for a new large-scale attack designed to seize additional Ukrainian territory – such as to gain a land bridge to Crimea (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, May 31).
In response to these aggressive Russian activities in the Sea of Azov, Kyiv initiated a case against Moscow in the International Permanent Court of Arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Additionally, starting in September, Ukraine began boosting its own military presence in Azov Sea region (President.gov.ua, September 15).
On October 12, the National Security and Defense Council rebuked Russian actions, saying they could “can lead to a critical destabilization of the economic and political situation, [such as a] sea blockade of the Ukrainian shore”; and it adopted a number of measures, including classified ones, to address the situation (President.gov.ua, October 12).
Furthermore, in an attempt to assert Ukraine’s right to freedom of navigation in the Azov Sea, in September Kyiv sent two armored artillery boats through the Kerch Strait to Berdyansk – a first step toward opening a new naval base there (see EDM, October 17). Also, in October, Ukraine held military exercises involving marine units, coastal artillery, army aircraft and tanks to test the reaction of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, National Guard and the State Border Service to a potential coastal attack (President.gov.ua, October 12).
The creation of a Ukrainian naval base in the Azov Sea has been under discussion for some time before it finally received pressing impetus in 2018, with the increasingly assertive Russian activities there. Ukraine’s consequent attempts to strengthen its naval and coastal-defense capabilities presently include efforts to create an Azov Sea naval grouping and related infrastructure as well as arming border guards with high-precision missile weaponry (Rnbo.gov.ua, September 6).
Ukraine’s deployment of armed vessels to the Sea of Azov already appeared to have some concrete deterrence effects on Russia, at least initially. In September, Russia stopped all interceptions of merchant ships within Ukraine’s 12-mile territorial water zone. And in the first half of October, intercepts of vessels in open waters stopped altogether, reportedly due to the aforementioned Ukrainian military exercises. However, this week’s attack on the Ukrainian naval group may portend the start of a new escalation by the Kremlin.
The key problem for Ukraine as it seeks to withstand the Russian naval offensive in the Azov Sea is its insufficient resources and huge disparity compared to Russian capabilities. Specifically, Ukraine lost the majority of its naval assets after the annexation of Crimea. Whereas, plans to revive its naval forces and develop a “Mosquito Fleet” of numerous small but highly maneuverable ships (see EDM, March 9, 2017) are still in the inception phase.
For now, Ukrainian decision-makers are mostly focused on political and diplomatic solutions. And martial law, according to President Petro Poroshenko, does not mean a declaration of war against Russia; it is purely defensive (President.gov.ua, November 25).
The article above is reprinted from Eurasia Daily Monitor with permission from its publisher, the Jamestown Foundation, www.jamestown.org.