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Russia, Ukraine, and the Sea of Azov

Russia, Ukraine, and the Sea of Azov
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits a polling station during a parliamentary election in Moscow, Russia, September 18, 2016. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor – RTSO8SI

On November 25, three Ukrainian naval vessels, two 54-ton gunboats (technically, Gyurza-M-class armored artillery cutters) and a tug, were traveling from Odessa around the Crimean Peninsula and toward the Sea of Azov, en route to the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. As they approached the Kerch Strait, the access route from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, vessels of the Russian Coast Guard, which is part of the Federal Security Service (FSB), ambushed them and blocked their passage. The Russian cutter Don rammed the tug and apparently attempted to ram the gunboats, which outmaneuvered it. Later, as the Ukrainian vessels attempted to escape, the Russians opened fire on them, injuring six sailors, and then detained all three vessels and their crews. The strait remained blocked to vessels seeking passage to or from the Ukrainian ports. Cargo ships hauling grain were allowed through only on December 4, but the Russians continued slow-walking the process. Three days later, Ukraine noted that 140 civilian ships were backed up on either side of the strait, waiting to be inspected and cleared for passage. The costs associated with the delays—$15,000–$20,000 a day—began to discourage shipping companies from serving the port of Mariupol. Shipments of metal out of Mariupol fell by 40 percent following the Kerch Strait incident. Russia has rejected a German proposal that OSCE monitors be deployed to supervise shipping in the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait.

annexed the Crimean Peninsula in a bloodless maneuver in 2014. Since then,
intermittent fighting has occurred between government forces and Russian-backed
rebels in portions of the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk (Donets’k
and Luhans’k in Ukrainian) in which more than 10,300 people have died. Tensions
have been building up at sea in recent months. After Ukraine seized a Russian
fishing vessel, Russia began harassing, delaying, and detaining ships from
Ukraine and other states in the Sea of Azov. Moscow unilaterally introduced
advanced-notice requirements and an inspection regime at the Kerch Strait.
Russia and Ukraine moved ships into the Sea of Azov, and Ukraine built up its onshore
coastal-defense forces.

This latest episode was unusual in that it involved live fire by undisguised, official Russian units. The two sides have blamed each other for causing it. The Russian press has depicted the episode as a Ukrainian provocation instigated by the “deep state” in Washington, which was seeking undermine President Trump’s efforts to improve relations with Russia. Ukraine responded the incident by declaring martial law for 30 days in ten provinces bordering Russia or Russian-controlled territory. Many people saw this declaration as a first step toward postponing the presidential election scheduled for March 31, 2019 (elections are not permitted during states of emergency), but martial law was lifted on schedule on December 26, although a ban on the entry of military-age Russian males was continued.

Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait

most recent dispute between Russia and Ukraine concerns the Sea of Azov, a
shallow extension of the Black Sea that lies northeast of the Crimean Peninsula
and northwest of Russia’s Taman Peninsula. The Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and
Berdyansk are situated on its northern shore. These ports, especially Mariupol,
are the principal outlets for eastern Ukraine’s steel, coal, and grain. Mariupol
has been a target of Russian-supported insurgents, but both ports remain in government

Sea of Azov is connected at its southern end to the main body of the Black Sea
through the Kerch Strait. Since Ukrainian territory (not to mention active
combat operations) separated Crimea from Russia proper, Russia began construction
of an 11.2-mile (18.1 kilometer) double-span bridge connecting the Crimean and
Taman peninsulas across the Kerch Strait following the 2014 annexation of
Crimea. (Presidents Medvedev and Yanukovych agreed in 2010 to build the bridge,
but there was little follow-through, not even a feasibility study, until 2014.)
The highway span was opened in May of this year. Construction continues on the
railroad span.

Construction of a bridge across the strait had the potential to restrict access to the Sea of Azov. Russia and Ukraine have disputed the bridge’s impact on navigation. In practical terms, however, the level of restriction appears to be limited. To be sure, the largest cargo ships cannot pass under the bridge. Ships of Panamax size, for instance, may be up to 190 feet (57 meters) high, while clearance under the bridge is only 115 feet (35 meters). Ukraine has drawn attention to this. On the other hand, a Panamax ship draws up to 39.5 feet (12 meters) of water, and the Kerch Strait is only 26 feet (8 meters) deep. Thus few ships of that size try to traverse it, and certainly not if they are fully loaded. Most of the ships that traveled regularly from the Black Sea to Mariupol should still be able to do so, and smaller ones could be substituted for those that cannot. The ongoing war, which has reduced shipping out of Mariupol, is a far more serious deterrent to commerce in the area. The recent episode showed, however, that a single tanker anchored under the bridge’s main arch can block access to the strait’s main shipping channel.


Two aspects of the Law of the Sea come into play here, those regarding straits and enclosed or semi-enclosed seas. Article 38 of the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS III) of 1982 provides with regard to straits used for international navigation that “all ships and aircraft enjoy the right of transit passage, which shall not be impeded.” Thus ships minding their own business have the right to use the strait to pass from one larger body of water to another, especially if that strait is the only connection. In some cases, longstanding treaties have been grandfathered in, such as the 1936 Montreux Convention regarding the Turkish Straits, but UNCLOS III applies to the case at hand.

UNCLOS III, in Article 123, is less precise with regard to enclosed or semi-enclosed seas, saying only that the countries bordering them should cooperate with each other in the exercise of their rights and the performance of their duties, but in this case they have done so. Russia and Ukraine signed a treaty on this subject in December 2003, which came into force the following April. This states explicitly in Article 2, Paragraph 1, that commercial vessels and warships and also other state vessels under the flag of the Russian Federation or Ukraine being used for noncommercial purposes enjoy freedom of navigation in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. Disputes regarding the treaty’s interpretation and application, according to Article 4, are to be resolved by consultations, negotiations, or other peaceful means chosen by the two sides.

the treaty is still in effect, even though Moscow claims both sides of the
Kerch Strait as Russian territory since the annexation of Crimea. The Kerch
Strait is still an international strait connecting two seas. Russia’s view of the
situation has evidently changed, however, despite the lack of any announcement
to that effect. The sailors on board the Ukrainian vessels have been put on
trial in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, under Russian domestic law, for
violating the Russian border.


Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s deep-sea surface fleet—what U.S. sailors would call the “blue water” navy—has deteriorated. (In October, Russia’s one floating dry dock capable of serving capital ships short-circuited, overloaded its ballast tanks, and sank while carrying Russia’s only aircraft carrier.)* In the interim, however, Russia has built up its force of coastal, or “littoral,” vessels—sometimes called the “brown water” navy owing to the discoloration of shallow coastal waters from runoff—and defending Russia’s maritime approaches and littorals is one of the surface fleet’s primary functions.

The Ukrainian navy was never large, and most of it was lost in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. The navy subsequently concentrated on building up its marine corps, so that actual sailors constitute only 6 percent of naval personnel. Ukraine’s fleet currently relies mostly on three–five combat ships, the largest of which is a frigate, and various patrol boats. Only the Gyurza-class gunboats are less than a quarter-century old. It too is primarily a brown-water navy.

Small ships are not without their advantages. The advent of cruise missiles has increased the lethality of small, less-than-sturdy vessels; operating close to land permits supporting them with shore-based missile and artillery batteries; and their size allows for innovative logistical solutions. In the course of 2018, Russia reinforced its naval presence in the area by transferring ships from the landlocked Caspian Sea up the Volga River, across the Volga-Don Canal, and down the Don River directly into the Sea of Azov. Likewise, Ukraine successfully established its first naval base on the Sea of Azov at Berdyansk by transferring two gunboats over inland waterways. The vessels involved in the November 25 incident were being transferred from Odessa to that base via the maritime route.

The nature of the naval forces in question is well adapted to the conditions of the Sea of Azov. Moreover, the incident suggests that coastal-defense forces might be better suited to some offensive operations than people have imagined. (Also, in 2015, Russia used its Caspian Sea flotilla to launch cruise missiles at targets 920 miles away in Syria, overflying Iranian and Iraqi territory.)


The big question hanging over all of this is a simple one: What is going to happen next? For many, the more specific question is: Will Russia use this incident as a prelude to an open attack on Ukraine? It is true, statistically speaking, that maritime disputes connected to disputes over territorial and identity issues, as we have between Russia and Ukraine, can generate a high risk of war. Some have speculated that Russia could use its domination of the Sea of Azov to bombard Ukrainian onshore positions from ships at sea or to launch an amphibious assault against Mariupol and Berdyansk. Ukraine’s President Poroshenko has claimed that Russian troops are massing on the border. Andrei Illarionov, a former Putin adviser (albeit an economic adviser who fell out with the president 13 years ago and now lives in the United States), has predicted that Russian forces based in Crimea will move across the border to seize a Ukrainian canal that, before the annexation, was a vital source of freshwater for the peninsula.

Several of these claims should be addressed with skepticism. As Michael Kofman of the CNA Corporation (a defense-oriented think tank) has pointed out, Poroshenko’s evidence of a troop buildup consisted of photos of stockpiled T-62 tanks. The Russians stopped making T-62 tanks 45 years ago and no longer use them, having subsequently developed the T-64, the T-72, the T-80, the T-90, and most recently the T-14. They do still sell old T-62s to places like Syria, however, and the photos are more likely to represent a warehouse for deliveries to foreign clients than a preparation for invasion (which would require additional preparations beyond that). Likewise, there has been little evident preparation for a thrust through Crimea.

The possibility of an overt invasion cannot be completely excluded, of course, but it would mark a significant break from Russia’s recent behavior. If Russia is going to attack, it prefers to arrange a situation in which it can blame the victim of that attack. More often, Russia operates by deception, denial, and faits accomplis. The seizure of Crimea, for instance, came in a rapid move by disguised troops for which Ukraine was not prepared. Having created a new status quo, a fait accompli, Russia then dared Ukraine or others to undo it. Equating an attack on Crimea with an attack on Russia itself, the Russian foreign minister even made a veiled threat of nuclear retaliation if anyone tried (which is easy to do if you do not expect to have to follow through). Having annexed Crimea, Russia had used up the element of surprise and could not expect to carry out an unresisted move in eastern Ukraine, so there it relied on proxy forces—locally recruited militias—bolstering them when necessary with disguised Russian troops whose presence it denied.

Kerch Strait incident, carried out as it was by official Russian Coast Guard
vessels, was a more blatant aggressive move, but the level of violence was kept
low enough that it did not demand immediate retaliation. (Indeed, the incident
began with attempts to ram ships, something that might be blamed on the other
side or written off as an accident, and the Russians resorted to gunfire only
when that failed.) If the Kerch Strait incident was intended to provoke Ukraine
into making an openly violent move, justifying a larger Russian response, then
Ukraine did not fall into the trap.

While Russia may attempt to push the envelope further, it is more likely that it has already achieved its goal by creating a new fait accompli. It effectively controls access to the Sea of Azov and can, at will, strangle the economically important ports on that sea. While the Ukrainian president has called on NATO to deploy warships to the Sea of Azov as a sign of solidarity, that is highly unlikely to happen. Even under the 2003 treaty, warships from third countries may visit a port only at the invitation of one country and with the agreement of the other. As a practical matter, Russia’s proven ability to close the Kerch Strait by anchoring a ship under the bridge means it could close off access to any ship unwilling to commit an act of war to force its way in.

The most likely next move for Russia is simply to do nothing overt. It will quietly solidify its control over the Sea of Azov, threatening others who attempt to violate its “sovereignty” there but engaging in no provocation large enough to demand an immediate response from Ukraine or anyone else. It will try to outwait the West’s economic sanctions, hoping that the United States and Europe eventually tire of the issue and in the meantime striving to divide them or at least undermine their solidarity with regard to Ukraine and Russian sanctions.

side has accused the other of planning a diversionary war to distract attention
from its domestic problems, but diversionary wars are more common in people’s
imaginations than in actual occurrence. If further fighting comes, it’s more
likely to result from one side’s reaction (or overreaction) to an unexpected
probe by the other—at a time of heightened tensions and frustration—than to
result from a planned attack. That is the contingency to watch out for.

does not apply to the Russian submarine fleet, which is sophisticated and



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.