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Anxious Days on the Azov Sea

Russia deploys more naval ships and steps up stop-and-search of Ukrainian cargo vessels.

29 June 2018

Russia’s beefed-up naval presence in the Sea of Azov is hurting Ukraine’s shipping industry.


Russia’s annexation of Crimea gave it control of the entire southern shore of the shared sea, including the Kerch Strait, its only outlet to the Black Sea. The new Kerch Strait bridge underlines its growing command of the sea all the more.


Moscow was angered when Ukraine seized a Russian fishing vessel in March and detained the crew. That led to warnings from both sides that they would use force to defend their ships; Russia began stopping and searching Ukrainian vessels.


In May, Russia transferred six military vessels from its Caspian Fleet to the Azov Sea and also conducted naval drills close to Ukraine’s 12-nautical-mile territorial zone, The Kyiv Post reported on 15 June.


The Kerch Strait spans from the Kerch Peninsula in the west to the Taman Peninsula in the east. Image via NASA.


Although some in Ukraine fear the naval buildup might signal plans for a new Russian incursion into Ukraine, the country’s ship owners are experiencing significant economic losses owing to the Russian harassment, according to the Kyiv paper.


“Since the end of May naval patrols of Russia’s Federal Security Service or FSB have been stopping international cargo vessels going to and from the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk, searching crews and ships for hours, and causing thousands of dollars of losses.” Cargo transshipments through Berdyansk Port dropped from 4.5 million tons in 2015 to 2.4 million tons in 2017, it writes.


But despite Ukrainian official warnings of Russian “seizures and hijackings” of its ships, so far this has not happened, Ukrainian ship owner Volodymyr Cherepovsky recently told RFE/RL.


A Ukrainian military serviceman said large-scale exercises announced by Russia for the Azov Sea have not taken place.


Moscow’s stop-and-search policy does not violate any laws, because the waters of the Azov Sea are shared by both countries, Ukrainian State Border Guard Service spokesman Oleh Slobodyan told The Kyiv Post.


That means Ukraine can do nothing to stop Russia’s naval buildup. Ukrainian naval vessels do not constantly patrol the sea, so its main military presence is limited to marine Border Service squads, said Boris Babin, the representative of the president of Ukraine on Crimean issues.



  • The Russian navy now deploys about 40 ships on the Azov Sea, Vadim Skibitsky of the main intelligence directorate of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry told a Ukrainian TV station this week, Paul Goble of the hawkish Jamestown Foundation U.S. think tank writes.


  • The Kyiv Post reports today on an upsurge in fighting in the Donbas region. Four Ukrainian soldiers were reported killed in clashes with separatist forces yesterday, and three more died on 27 June from artillery fire near the city of Volnovakha, not far from Mariupol. The Ukrainian military said at least nine enemy fighters were killed yesterday during heavy fighting in the town of Pivdenne.

Compiled by Ky Krauthamer

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