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Ukraine’s South as a New Geopolitical Flashpoint


Ukraine’s South as a New Geopolitical Flashpoint

Four factors make further tensions between Russia and Ukraine along the shores of the Crimean peninsula and Azov Sea probable.


On 25 November 2018, at the Kerch Strait, Russia attacked as well as captured three Ukrainian navy vessels, and arrested their 24 sailors. The maritime clash indicates that the focal point of the Russian-Ukrainian military conflict may, in 2019, gradually switch from the Donets Basin to the Azov Sea. According to Vitaliy Kravchuk, senior researcher at the Institute of Economic Research and Policy Consulting in Kyiv, “if there are further marine incidents, it could mean the closure of the Azov ports for shipping.”

Such a development would have grave economic repercussions not only for the large cities of Mariupol (ca. 455,000 inhabitants) and Berdyansk (ca. 115,000 inhabitants). These two ports have hitherto been handling ca. 5% of Ukraine’s foreign trade, above all, in steel, chemicals and agricultural products. Ukraine has only limited or/and decrepit alternative transport infrastructure to redirect trade flows that have until now gone through the Mariupol and Berdyansk seaports. An escalation at the Azov Sea will above all threaten social stability, in south-eastern mainland Ukraine. It can also lead to a significant reduction or even curtailment of Ukrainian economic growth in 2019 and beyond.

Absent Western material reactions and international organizations

In spite of these potentially grave consequences, such a scenario is not unlikely. There are several simultaneously working and mutually aggravating catalysts for rising tensions along the Azov and Black Sea coast lines. They include (a) the reaction of the West vis-à-vis different Russian escalation scheme, (b) the degree of involvement of international organizations in the Azov Sea, (c) the stability and functionality of the Kerch Strait Bridge, and (d) the unresolved issue of sustainable fresh water supply to occupied Crimea.

A major factor currently enabling escalation in the Azov is the West’s reaction or lack thereof to the recent naval confrontation near the Kerch Strait Bridge. The West, so far, follows – what one could call – the Crimea Modus (and not Donbas Modus) of response to rising tension between Moscow and Kyiv. The EU has not reacted materially, as it did after the shooting of MH17 in July 2014, to the capture of Ukrainian sailors last year.

Instead, it has so far – reminiscent of its behavior in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 – been sending verbal and symbolic signals to Moscow. The West’s, until now, non-material signaling may encourage the Kremlin to switch Russian military and other anti-Ukrainian activities from the Donbas to the Azov Sea. To Moscow, the latter may appear as an – above all, economically – less risky hybrid war theater than the Donbas.

A second determinant is the involvement of international organizations or lack thereof, in the two different regions. It is worth remembering that Putin, in 2017, suggested an increase of such organizations’ presence in the Donbas. He proposed to add a small, armed UN protection contingent to the relatively large, unarmed OSCE observation mission. To be sure, this proposal did not satisfy Ukraine and the West back then, and was thus not implemented.

Still, Putin has, with regard to the Donbas, been far more lenient regarding the presence of international organizations than with regard to the Azov Sea and Crimea region. Here, the Kremlin is demonstratively blocking even a minor presence of unarmed OSCE or other observers, not to mention an armed UN mission. The absence of any international organizations in the Azov Sea and on Crimea makes Russian actions against Ukraine there less risky and more likely.

Unclear Future of Kerch Strait Bridge and Water-Supply on Crimea

A third factor potentially motivating the Kremlin to behave more adventurously between the Azov and Black Seas would be technical malfunctioning or economic ineffectiveness of the new Kerch Strait Bridge connecting Russia and Crimea. This prestige object has a high symbolic political meaning for the legitimization of the Putin regime vis-à-vis the Russian population. The bridge could – for one or another reason – not reach its supposed aim to provide a push to Crimea’s social development and integration into the Russian economy. In such a case, the Kremlin may start searching for apologies for such failure, and try to stage an escalation that can be spun to explain a partial or full dysfunctionality of the bridge.

This would, in particular, be the case, if the bridge starts crumbling. In Ukrainian media, there have, since the opening of the so-called “Crimean Bridge” in May 2018, been repeatedly reports about engineering issues with, and geological challenges of, the long conduit. A possible closure or even collapse of the bridge would be a catastrophic blow to the Putin regime’s post-annexation public self-image, and make deceptive maneuvers – including military ones – by the Kremlin more probable. Even if the controversial construction holds, the question remains how far the bridge will go to fulfil its purpose of pushing Crimea’s economy and assimilating it into Russia’s. Should the expensive connection not meet these geoeconomic tasks, this too will increase the likelihood of a distracting anti-Ukrainian escalation designed to obscure a strategic blunder by the Kremlin.

A final urgent problem for the Kremlin is the precarious situation with fresh water supply, on Crimea. In 2014, Kyiv stopped delivery of water from the Dnipro river through the North Crimean Channel, via the Isthmus of Perekop, to the peninsula. Constantly declining aquatic reserves, in combination with continuing dearth of energy supply, are a virtual time bomb with potentially far-reaching economic and social consequences for Crimea’s inhabitants. In a surprising geoeconomic gaffe, Moscow has done little to resolve this issue since 2014. Russia has not built, for instance, a noteworthy desalination facility and respective energy infrastructure that could ease Crimea’s growing fresh water issue.

Should there be no principal solution to this problem soon via, for instance, erection a large desalination plant, Crimeans will experience ever more sharply repercussions of insufficient water supply, for their economy and, eventually, daily lives. A rise of social tensions on the peninsula may provide yet another potential trigger for escalation between Russia and Ukraine. Moscow may try to capture the closed channel between Crimea and the Dnipro river. This would lead Russian regular troops deep into Ukraine’s southern mainland, and start a second as well as now regular inter-state war between the two countries.

The above scenarios factors and scenarios constitute only some of the possible determinants for escalation between Russia and Ukraine. Yet, give that these four conditions combine in Crimea, the Kerch Strait and Azov Sea, they make continuing or even rising tensions in this area likely. The Azov Sea ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk will be operating, if at all, under various limitations and risks. Will the Ukraine and its Western partners be able and willing to provide some plausible stability guarantees and security mechanisms to the various economic actors engaged in the region? If not, the Ukrainian state as well as various national and foreign companies should start preparing themselves for a gradual decline of Mariupol and Berdyansk as well as the grave social and political consequences this will have.



Andreas Umland

Andreas Umland, Dr.Phil. (FU Berlin), Ph.D. (Cambridge), is a Research Fellow at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Senior Expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv, and Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He has held fellow- & lectureships at Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Urals State University, Shevchenko University of Kyiv, and Catholic University of Eichstaett. He is also General Editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" ( and on the Boards of Directors of the International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies (, Boris Nemtsov Academic Center for the Study of Russia ( as well as German-Ukrainian NGO "Kyiv Dialogue" (

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