Ukraine has had difficulty accessing the Kerch strait since Crimea’s annexation in 2014, as Russia controls both sides. The completion of the Kerch Strait Bridge in May 2018 reinforced Russia’s grip on the region. Moscow has also progressively militarised the Black Sea region, including by upgrading its Sevastopol-based Black Sea Fleet. Thereafter, Russia began stopping and searching ships including foreign vessels headed to and from Ukrainian ports, bringing about often lengthy delays. The situation is destabilising the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk.
On 25 November 2018, Russian vessels rammed, fired on, and seized three Ukrainian Navy vessels at the entrance of the Kerch Strait which connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. In spite of the conflicting accounts of what led to this clash, the decisive and illegal use of military force by Russia marked another escalation in an already volatile context. 24 Ukrainian sailors were captured, among which six were injured. Russia may have been trying to provoke Ukraine into responding, as Moscow had already used such tactics to trigger the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.
This incident is part of a larger pattern. Russia is seeking to impose its control over the Azov Sea to consolidate its grip on Crimea. This act of aggression violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as well as the 2003 Treaty on the Legal Status of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, which declare both as shared Ukrainian-Russian territorial waters. The incident also underlines the security challenges that Ukraine faces, including Kyiv’s (in-)ability to secure and control its sovereign borders. Furthermore, it has implications for the Black Sea security more broadly and is part of Moscow’s long-term efforts to destabilise Ukraine.
Furthermore, in the wake of the attack, Russia temporarily closed navigation to non-Russian traffic through the strait, which could very well harm Ukraine’s economy. By putting pressure on Ukraine’s ports in the Sea of Azov, Russia is hoping to keep Ukraine politically and economically feeble. Russia wants to make Ukrainians hostile towards their government ahead of the 2019 Presidential and parliamentary elections. Closing the strait to transit, even temporarily, reinforces Russia’s claims on Crimea and Ukraine’s inability to prevent it.
On 26 November, the Ukrainian Parliament voted in favour of martial law but for a limited period of thirty days and only covering regions bordering Russia, and the Black and Azov Seas. The Parliament also formally set the date of the first round of the presidential election on 31 March 2019. Nevertheless, martial law allows for a range of restrictions, including on constitutional rights and freedom of the media.
So far, the international community’s response has been limited to statements calling for de-escalation and asking Russia to restore freedom of passage at the Kerch Strait. These measures will not deter Moscow from future provocations, as history has shown. The lack of meaningful response to Russian aggression in Georgia in August 2008 almost certainly encouraged Russia in its decision to annex Crimea. The events of 25 November 2018 serve as a reminder that the conflict in Ukraine is far from over and that Russia is seeking to extend its control in the Sea of Azov.
‚The Sea of Azov Should Not Become a Russian Lake‘ – Policy Briefing by Amanda Paul – European Policy Centre / EPC.