Sea of Azov: Ticking timebomb?

Sea of Azov: Ticking timebomb?

After a period of relatively consistent, low-intensity fighting in eastern Ukraine, 2018 has brought new developments with the opening of the Kerch Strait Bridge in the Sea of Azov. With the additional maritime element in Russia’s strategy, further destabilization of the region can be expected.

Kerch Strait Bridge

The ongoing armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation has undergone several developments in 2018 – important among them being the newly added maritime element to the conflict with Russia’s recent activities in the Sea of Azov off the coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Officially opening on 16 May, Moscow successfully constructed a bridge across the Kerch Strait, connecting Crimea to mainland Russia. Being the only waterway through which the sea’s maritime shipping may navigate to and from the Black Sea, Russia has begun restricting the movement of foreign vessels. This move mainly affected the Ukrainian ones, to and from the Sea of Azov. Part of a larger strategy of economic warfare, as of June 2018, over 144 container ships have been restricted from passing under the bridge to the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk, becoming subject to search by Russian naval vessels. With search times upwards of 24 hours or more, maritime traffic has been severely hamstrung to Ukraine’s fifth and eighth largest ports in terms of volume of trans-shipped goods, respectively.

Linking the land to the sea

From the very beginning of this new maritime addition to Russia’s so-called hybrid warfare approach, Moscow has displayed how it may be used to link such activities with its preexisting land campaign. For example, just one week after the bridge was opened across the Kerch Strait, on 22 May Russian-separatist forces launched an artillery strike on Talakovka, located in the Donetsk region near Mariupol. As the Ukrainian military is limited on resources, in comparison to the Russian Federation, any choices between defending against separatist forces in Donbas and buttressing against an impending naval build-up would happen against the backdrop of a zero-sum game.

Russia’s strategy

On 17 October, the city of Kerch experienced an attack on a local polytechnic college for teenagers. Carried out by an 18-year-old, fourth-year student at the school, 20 people were killed and over 50 injured in the gunfire and explosives which were detonated in the school’s cafeteria. A terrible event in and of itself, this should be analyzed within the larger context of recent events in Crimea and within the Sea of Azov. From the beginning, Russian security officials cited the restriction of movement through the Kerch Strait as a response to fears of terrorist activities – namely from Ukraine – against the newly constructed bridge. The initial naval build-up in the Sea of Azov, including Russia deploying their Caspian Sea flotilla to the region occurred under the guise of this narrative. Now with a real example of danger in the region, regardless of its source, expect the Kremlin to push this narrative to support further militarization. Unclear as of yet, immediate ramifications may include greater security presence in the area in addition to increased restriction regarding passage through the Kerch Strait.

Such activities, efforts to augment Russia’s economic war and support separatist militias against Ukraine, will further depress Ukraine’s economy vis a vis maritime trade and investors’ confidence. Militarily, any increased activity on the part of the Russian Navy may additionally warrant concern of westward expansion into the Black Sea, denying Ukraine of much needed economic resources – with the Black Sea representing 80% of Ukraine’s exports. A preexisting example to showcase the likelihood of such an event could be seen when Russia illegally seized oil derricks near Odessa using naval special operations forces and has subsequently been guarding them with several small warships.

Outlook

The Kremlin has set a precedent for activities such as this. One might recall bombings and terrorist attacks in Moscow, Chechnya, Beslan, and other areas of the Russian Federation which have been used to incite fear into people and pave the way for heightened security measures. While circumventing the question as to whether the attacker was a lone wolf, or part of a larger conspiracy, there is a likely risk that Moscow will attempt to form a narrative around such a tragedy, with a mix of both available and fabricated evidence and claims in order to push their political and military agenda in the region. Preliminary actions toward this end have been seen with Crimean Parliamentary officials placing blame for the attacks on Kyiv, and Putin stating that the killing was “the result of globalization.” Further reasoning for such a conclusion comes from the Ukrainian presidential campaign season in full swing, with elections taking place next March. The Kremlin may continuously use such events as an excuse to bolster their position in the region, thereby pressuring Kyiv in future discussions such as the resumption of water supply from the Dnipro River to the Crimean Peninsula – where they are dangerously close to experiencing a drought, as well as to, in general, weaken the position of their Ukrainian interlocutors within the framework of the Minsk agreements. With Moscow’s strongest option thus far being a frozen conflict akin to Transnistria, further destabilization in the Sea of Azov – and Black Sea writ large – will remain an attractive option for Putin.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Jonathan Hall

Jonathan Hall is a GRI Junior Analyst, focusing on Eurasian geopolitics, military affairs, and emerging technologies. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from Central European University and dual bachelor's degrees from Florida State University where he studied International Affairs, Russian, and Criminology.