geopolitics Special issues

Sea of Flames: the Russia-Ukraine possible escalation in the Black and Azov Seas

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A possible escalation in the hostilities between Russia and Ukraine is mounting in the last days in the Black Sea and Azov Sea region, after Russian naval forces seized three Ukrainian ships. After the two ground-battle frontlines, first in Crimea and then in Donbas, the conflict could now spread to the sea with the opening of a third front. 

Getting the Facts “Strait”

The escalation of the situation in and around the Black Sea concerns the seizure of three Ukrainian vessels by Russia. The two gunboats “Berdyansk” and “Nikopol”, and the “Yana Kapa” tug sailed from the port of Odessa (which is the principal Ukrainian naval base in the Black Sea after the loss of Sevastopol) and tried to reach the port of Mariupol in the Azov Sea. Russian naval forces tried to intercept the vessels in the Black Sea,even ramming the tug. However they continued towards the Kerch Strait, where they were ultimately blocked by a tanker.

While Russia sent two helicopters and two fighter jets to the area, it accused the ships of wanting to enter its waters illegally.Ukrainian authorities declared that they had informed their Russian counterparts of its plan to move their ships to Mariupol, but Moscow denies this statement. Thus it blocked the entrance to the Azov Sea claiming security concerns. The blockade was eventually removed after roughly 24 hours, since it was denounced as a breach in international law concerning the free navigation and secure passage of ships.

The status of the Azov Sea is governed by a 2003 bilateral agreement on considering it as internal waters of the two littoral states, Russia and Ukraine. However after the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula, Russia can claim the control of a greater area and consider the Kerch Strait as a national one, governing it as a consequence of this.

The Ukrainian navy said that its vessels had been hit by the Russian boats, which prevented them to leave the area. In the clashes six crew members were injured. On the other hand, Russia did admit that one of its patrol boats had used force (due to a later confirmation from the FSB, the Russian national intelligence agency), but claimed that only three people were wounded.

Mounting Tensions in and around the Black Sea

Skirmishes of this kind, however, do not come out of the blue. In the past few months, the Azov Sea has become increasingly militarised, with both countries thickening the lines of their naval deployments. In early September a Ukrainian naval commander said that the country would send more vessels, artillery and marines to the sea. About a week later, on the 8th, the deployment of two armoured artillery boats to the port city of Berdyansk was announced. On September 12th, it was the commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, Col. Gen. Serhiy Popko, who declared a further boost the coastal in the region with the strengthening of ground forces near the sea, the establishment of permanent territorial defence structures, and the deployment of missile and artillery forces. Moreover, four days later the Ukrainian government announced the creation of a naval base in the Azov Sea before the end of the year.

On the other hand, even Russia has bolstered its forces in and around the Black Sea, redeploying at least 17 warships (of which at least 12 are equipped with nuclear cruise missiles “Kalibr”) and 40 patrol boats from the landlocked Caspian Sea. A small digression is needed here to understand the bigger picture. Last 12th of August, a very important Convention was signed in the port city of Aktau, in Kazakhstan, concerning the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. It was signed by the five littoral states that face the Caspian Sea (namely Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan)and, among other, it limits foreign military presence to the five signatory states only. A position long requested by both Russia and Iran, it allows Russian forces for a general deployment re-articulation in more contested theatres,such as the Black Sea / Azov Sea.

The overall force count in and around the Black Sea, however, is heavily unbalanced: Ukraine can count on 66 combat and auxiliary naval units, with 11,000 service members – in the Azov Sea it just has two coast guard detachments in Berdyansk and Mariupol with old and small patrol boats; while the Russian Black Sea Fleet (based in port city of Sevastopol, in Crimea) can count on more than 2,800 vessels and 25,000 service members, while also having stationed more than 40,000 troops in Crimea. Russia is also introducing modernised weapons and new military equipment. Moreover,Russian vessels are bigger and stronger than the Ukrainian ones.

The Importance of the Azov Sea

The Azov Sea has a critical importance for Ukraine’s economy, since 80% of its exports pass through the body of water. Indeed the Ukrainian ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol became increasingly involved in receiving cargo traffic after the Crimean Peninsula was occupied by Russia. Moreover,Mariupol has a crucial strategic importance since it is only 20 km far from the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic.

The role of these cities however has been undermined by the construction of the new bridge across the Kerch Strait. With its less-than-35-metre height, it deliberately impedes some cargo ship to pass under, precluding commercial traffic from operating in the Azov Sea, thus putting these cities in economic jeopardy. Russia enforces also blockades of the Strait, and thus of Azov Sea, costing huge losses for the Ukrainian ports. Placing the region in harsh economic conditions plays in favour of Moscow since it can destabilise it even more. The claim by Ukrainian officials, indeed, is that Russia is planning the seizure of other parts of Ukraine in order to establish a land corridor to Crimea.

Furthermore, as a result of the assassination of the Donetsk leader Alexander Zakharchenko at the end of August, hostilities in Eastern Ukraine have been increasing. If, on the one hand, in the short run Russia has refused to meet again in the Normandy Four (the broader political framework of the negotiations gathering Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany), on the other, Ukrainian officials are increasingly trying to severe their countries’ links with Moscow, ending many agreements they share.

Room for Further Escalation

In the meanwhile the proposal of the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to the martial law was adopted by the Parliament, entering into force today. The vagueness of the description of the content of this law was denounced by many legal experts in Ukraine, since it will allow for expanded measures to guarantee national security, granting a greater role to the military apparatus. The more concerning points are: the possibility of regulating and censoring the media; a ban on elections and referenda on any level;a ban on any type of social gathering and other mass events; a ban on political activities deemed detrimental to state security etc.

The imposition of the martial law is indeed an extraordinary measure, of such a kind that it was not adopted even after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the start of the hostilities in the Donbas. Thus the escalation of the situation in the Azov Sea has already influenced Ukrainian society at large, coupled with the economic fallouts highlighted above. This only adds up to the general instability of South-Eastern Ukraine, blurring and exacerbating even more the status quo.

While the West commonly accused Russia of breaching international law, a more muscular response was requested by many experts. This response should include: sectoral economic sanctions; transfer of more lethal assistance to Ukraine; giving radars to Ukraine, in order to boost its capabilities in maritime awareness and land-based anti-ship missiles;imposition of assets freeze on Russian banks; creation of a larger West naval presence in the Black Sea etc. The aim is to sharpen Russian internal struggle sand to apply a stronger deterrence to it in the European peripheries.

In case a conflict ignites in the Azov Sea, it would remain to be seen if the hybrid warfare mechanism of conducting hostilities would apply. Indeed it is the first time ever in the Russia-Ukraine conflict that there is the direct involvement of official Russian military troops, thus avoiding the use of proxies or of the “little green men”. The perception however is that it would be cumbersome for Russia to stretch even more the frontline with Ukraine. The deployment of a peace-keeping operation (if it would even be feasible at this point) could only benefit Russia, creating a de facto recognition of the stalemate and of Russian jurisdiction on the major part of the Azov Sea. However, a renounce of an open deterrence of Russia in the Azov Sea could lead to a resumption of hostilities in the Donbas. At this point common concerted plurilateral efforts of de-confliction are need in and around the Black Sea.

By Fabio Seferi

Fabio holds a Master's Degree in International Relations and European Studies from the University of Florence, Italy. His Master's thesis focused on the role and influence of Russia, Turkey and China in the Western Balkans. He has been Programme Assistant Intern at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, and Ad-Hoc Research Assistant for The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. Fabio’s main research interests focus on conflicts, political violence, hybrid warfare, intelligence analysis and organised crime.

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