Tensions escalate in the Azov Sea as historical territorial claims, botched agreements, and heightened military presence threaten the stability of the region and Ukrainian economic endeavours.
No shots have been fired and no major incidents have occurred, but the appearance of six Russian vessels in the form of patrol personnel-carriers and draught gunboats, as well as an FSB border service and checkpoints through the Kerch Strait, all mark a heightened aggression and loss of strategic balance in the region.
While this escalation is yet to involve the military, the local Ukrainian economy is already taking a hit, with flights delayed by hours, and port shipments canceled altogether. Experts claim that Russia’s actions mark an attempt to suppress the economic activity of Ukraine’s regional ports and trade.
Hromadske explores the crisis first hand, from holiday interruptions to larger-scale economic obstacles.
If the Russian naval presence marks a decline in economic activity, it would be fair to describe the present actions as a blockade. The construction of the Kerch Bridge, a project to connect the main territory of Russia with Crimea, marked an early obstacle to port activity. With the erection of the bridge’s arches, vessels exceeding 33 meters in height have been unable to pass. Since the erection of the arches, an estimated 144 ships have been unable to enter the port of Mariupol.
“We lost about eight million tons of cargo. Today, six million tons are being processed, at some point it used to be 15 – 17,” says the director of the port of Mariupol Oleksandr Oliynyk.
Besides the physical limitations on cargo ships and various other vessels, Russia’s federal security service has also started stopping and searching international vessels looking to enter the ports along the Azov coast.
The panic and a volatile geo-political situation have created a tenuous business environment which has forced Ukrainian companies to explore alternative venues to keep and attract investors. This is especially necessary given the local presence granaries and agricultural work which depends on the export market.
In Berdyansk, a port city along the Azov coast located in the Zaporizhia region, it is reported that cargo shipments have dropped more than 30 percent.
Artem Mazny, head of the grain terminal and ship repair plant, both of which belong to the Mariupol Investment Group, emphasized that the situation goes beyond the loss of certain enterprises on the Azov coast.
“It negatively impacts the entire work chain, the whole sector. Terminals, ports, shipowners, grain traders – all of which have their own contracts – suffer due to the delays,” Mazny says.
However, the Azov Sea is not only important because of its ports. It has also become a popular tourist destination since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
Holiday Resorts and Military Exercises
The Ukrainian Armed Forces declared three sections of the Azov Sea – including the area near the Berdyansk spit – military training zones for the duration of the holiday season in light of the crisis.
The local council executive committee say that since 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and all of the peninsula’s holiday resorts, the number of holiday-goers to this area of mainland Ukraine has increased. This trend has continued this summer.
“This season has started at the same level, there are a lot of tourists in the town. Nine children’s centers have opened this year. There are 2,402 children convalescing here,” says Viktoria Lepina, a specialist in the resort-hotel department of the Berdyansk executive committee.
Children’s camp “Fakel” is a prime example of this. This year the camp was fully booked. The parents sending their children to Berdyansk don’t seem to care about the situation in Berdyansk:
“We take up to 200 calls from parents every day. In this whole time, there hasn’t been a single question (about the Azov Sea crisis – ed.). Parents are not worried about this,” says the camp’s guidance counselor Maria Kryachko.
Agreements, Loss, and Future Strategy
Until the conflict between Russia and Ukraine began in 2014, most of the Azov coast and the navigable waterway in the Kerch Strait was controlled by Ukraine. But tension between Russia and Ukraine concerning territorial waters actually dates back to 2003, with the dispute over Tuzla island and Russia’s construction of a dam across the Strait.
However, an agreement was eventually reached in 2004 between then Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Russian President Vladimir Putin. This agreement declared the Azov waters to be “internal waters”, and control of the sea was shared between both nations for mutual economic benefit.
Thus far, attempts to establish a Ukrainian military presence to secure Ukraine’s claims in light of the agreement have either been fruitless or held in secrecy. At any rate, the Russian interpretation of the agreement is based around its understanding of the current borders between the two states, including its control of the Kerch Strait.
In 2015, the Ukrainian parliament attempted to formally renounce the 2004 agreement, but the bill was scrapped shortly after being sent in for revision.
Flashpoint Tension and a New Battlefront
With the conflict entering into formal territorial disputes and breach of agreements, experts fear that Russia’s actions may lead to an escalation in tensions, and therefore a new battlefront in the present conflict.
Russia justifies its actions in light of the treaty, but also in terms of defending both Crimea and the Kerch Bridge from any actions by Ukraine.
Despite the lack of Ukrainian naval presence in the Azov Sea, Ukrainian military exercises have been reported in the area as a means of defending the coast. Ukrainian military experts argue that Ukraine must adopt a short-term strategy to deal with the immediate threat as a “mirror response”, while cultivating a long-term strategy that will ultimately result in the restitution of international law in the area.
Sergei Gaiduk, Commander of the Ukrainian Navy from 2014 to 2016, states that Ukraine should respond symmetrically to Russia’s actions in the Azov Sea, paying special attention to enforcing its interpretation of the internal sea agreement.
“Our maritime border guards have the same powers as the FSB naval border guards for stopping and leaving suspicious vessels, checking court documents, dismissing crews for questions of legitimacy, smuggling, legality of migrants’ transportation. In this situation, everything is simple and transparent, we must act.”
According to military expert Lieutenant-General Igor Romanenko, there are three possible routes that can be taken in addressing the present conflict.
“First, on the premise of how the borders were arranged during the time of the Ukrainian SSR, and RSFSR, which both were part of the Soviet Union. However, Russians do not recognize that distribution. The second option is to reaffirm the Sea of Azov as internal waters, but mark the border from the coast along a “middle line.” However, according to this option, Ukraine again gets a significant part of the sea, so Russia will not agree to this.”
In Romanenko’s view, the most acceptable option is the third – not to recognize the sea as internal, but to consider it to be international waters. This will automatically determine the 12-mile strip along the Ukrainian coast as Ukrainian territorial waters.
“The main thing is that foreign warships can enter the Azov Sea. But, having discussed such variants for 12 years, no conclusions were drawn.”
Translated by Sofia Fedeczko and Vladislav Yakovlev