The Jamestown Foundation
January 16, 2021
Russia’s “hard power” activity in the Sea of Azov has increased significantly since May 2018, when the authorities officially opened the Kerch Strait Bridge they had been building since the illegal annexation of Crimea (UNIAN, May 15, 2018). Immediately, experts identified Moscow’s bridge building project as, in part, a deliberate “access limitation” operation. Moreover, both during the construction phase and since completion, it was accompanied by frequent freedom-of-navigation restrictions (“access denial”—see below), including systematic Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Coast Guard boarding and inspections of merchant vessels traveling through the Kerch Strait to and from Berdyansk and Mariupol, the Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov. Some of these incidents occurred only 5–7 miles from the Ukrainian coast and lasted up to 28–57 hours before the vessels were allowed to depart on their way (see EDM, June 11, 2018; Blackseanews.net, December 15, 2020).
Additionally, due to the height limits of the main arch of the Kerch Bridge, 144 merchant vessels Mariupol had previously worked with have lost the possibility of passage to the Sea of Azov (24tv.ua, May 14, 2018). “This is a loss of exports to just the United States of 1 million tons of Ukrainian metal annually!” the former minister of Infrastructure of Ukraine (2016–2019) Volodymyr Omelyan stressed two years ago. He also noted a significant deterioration in the condition of grain logistics in Ukraine’s Azov region due to the significant cargo shipping cost increases associated with the Russians’ new requirements for passing through the Kerch Strait (Mtu.gov.ua, November 28, 2018).
Artificial delays for vessels at the Kerch Strait entrance on their route to and from Mariupol and Berdyansk has continued to dramatically rise since July 2018, extending to an average wait period of 73–88 hours per vessel in August 2018—10 to 12 times longer than in May 2018 (Euromaidanpress.com, July 18, 2018). The peak was recorded later that November, when delays reached 124.2 hours (Blackseanews, December 15, 2020).
The ever-lengthening ship stoppages were not incidental: along with the “access limitations” imposed by the Kerch Bridge, they represent a specific “access denial” tactic for implementing the Kremlin’s broader “Boa Constrictor” strategy, which aims at stifling Ukraine’s Azov Sea littoral economy (see EDM, June 11, 2018). In 2018, Ukrainian losses from the multi-pronged Russian blockade of the Sea of Azov reached 10 billion hryvnas ($360 million) (Epravda.com.ua, February 3, 2019).
The Russian FSB halted its boarding inspections in October 2018, as a result of Ukraine initiating Navy and State Border Service escorts of cargo ships heading to and from its Azov Sea ports (Blackseanews.net, December 15, 2020). Moreover, at the turn of 2018–2019, under the threat of new Western sanctions, Russia reduced the delay times at the entrance to the Kerch Strait. In January 2019, the average wait time for ships outside the strait was 32.1 hours, which later fell to 19.8 hours in July of that year.
However, it rose again in August–September 2019, particularly for vessels attempting to exit the Sea of Azov (up to 78.5 hours); this suggested Russia was most interested in interfering with Ukrainian export cargoes as well as seeking to limit any merchant vessel traffic near occupied Crimea’s massive Opuk sea-land firing range, located close to the Kerch Strait and routinely hosting large-scale Russian military exercises (Kerch.fm, July 9, 2019; Vesti-k.ru, August 31, 2019; Kerch info, September 22, 2019).
The average delay time per vessel dropped again, to 16–27 hours, in October 2019—a period that notably coincided with preparations for the first hearing of Ukraine’s case against Russia at the United Nations International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea as well as Moscow’s decision to attend the Normandy quartet (Ukraine, Russia, France, Germany) summit in Paris. On average, throughout 2019, artificial delays for ships attempting to enter the Kerch Strait from the Black Sea reached 29.9 hours, while from the Sea of Azov—37.4 (Blackseanews.net, December 15, 2020).
Vessel wait times approached pre-blockade amounts in the first part of 2020 (up to 14.5 hours per ship in May), probably due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, those delays increased again in July–September, likely not coincidentally as Russia held military exercises at the Opuk firing range, with wait times again dropping to 15.3-19.1 hours by October (Blackseanews.net, December 15, 2020).
November 2020, on the other hand, saw average vessel delays double month-on-month (29.4 hours on the Black Sea side and 35 hours from the Sea of Azov). This period was characterized by the critical exacerbation of drinking water shortages on the occupied Crimean peninsula.
In May 2014, Ukraine stopped the supply of fresh water to Russian-occupied Crimea (Segodnya.ua, May 14, 2014). The Russian occupation authorities publicly declared plans for seawater desalination or even extraction of fresh water from the bottom of the Sea of Azov as possible solutions to the water crisis (Znak.com, December 18, 2020). These options, however, look quite expensive (Krymr.com, January 3, 2021).
Moreover, any unilateral Russian attempts to conduct exploration in the Sea of Azov, the status of which is determined by a 2003 Russian-Ukrainian agreement, could further escalate the bilateral conflict (BBC—Ukrainian service, December 30, 2020). At the same time, the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine does not exclude that Russia might try to invade the territory of Kherson region, adjacent to Crimea and the Sea of Azov, in order to establish control over the dam of the North-Crimean Canal (Szru.gov.ua, August 3, 2020; see EDM, May 21, 2020 and June 29, 2020).
Thus, from 2018 to the present, Moscow’s “hybrid” strategy in the Sea of Azov has ebbed and flowed as necessary: Russian actions against vessels coming through the Kerch Strait to and from Mariupol and Berdyansk are tightened when Russia needs to put pressure on Ukraine and loosened when the Kremlin needs to show the West its “good will.” The Kerch “valve” will likely be used by Moscow together with other tools as a way to pressure Kyiv into resuming the supplies of Dnipro River water to Crimea. The key question at present for the Ukrainian authorities is how to most quickly neutralize this threat.
One clear answer will be the Ukrainian Navy’s prompt deployment of Mark VI and Island-class boats to patrol the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea; other solutions could involve more regular visits of United States and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member state warships not only to Odesa but also to Mykolayiv and Kherson.
Finally, joint international military drills in firing ranges near Mykolayiv as well as the placement of a Polish Naval Strike Missile (NSM) battery near Odesa would also swiftly change the regional security calculus for Moscow.