Tensions Between Ukraine And Russia Boil Over In Sea Of Azov As Chances For War Escalate (Updated)

A violent naval confrontation and what appears to be the beginning of a naval blockade could throw the region into open conflict. 

Russia Ukraine Ships
Andrej Krylov—Sputnik via AP

Events have been moving very fast and details remain foggy, but what we do know is that the friction that has been building in the Sea of Azov, the shallow body of water between Ukraine and Russia, has come to a head. 

Reports indicate that a Russian vessel rammed a Ukrainian tugboat Yany Kapu, damaging the vessel. The tugboat was part of a trio of Ukrainian ships, which also included Berdiansk and Nikopol gunboats, that were transiting from Odessa in the Black Sea to the port city of Mariupol in the Sea of Azov. Ukraine says the Russian ships also opened fire on one of their gunboats, possibly injuring some of its crew. Russia says the boats were carrying out aggressive maneuvers after illegally entering their territorial waters. Ukraine says the small flotilla was also stalked by attack helicopters during the incident. The vessels have since been boarded by Russian forces.

Not long after that encounter, Russia blocked the entrance to the Sea of Azov via positioning a freighter length-wise in front of the entrance under the 12-mile long bridge Russia had built recently across the Kerch Strait. Many have claimed that the bridge was partly designed for just this type of circumstance, to choke off access to Ukraine's eastern ports from the Black Sea and beyond. Russian Ka-52 attack helicopters and Su-25 attack jets are now patrolling the Kerch Strait as part of what appears to be the beginning of a blockade. 

For months, Ukraine had warned that Russia would deny access to the Sea of Azov to ships heading to Ukrainian ports in an effort to further erode Ukraine's economy and assert total control over the body of water. Some posit that such an act would be a prelude to large military offensive to seize Ukrainian port cities and to eventually connect Russian backed-separatist territory in Eastern Ukraine with Russian-held Crimea. 

Russia has been slowing and hassling marine traffic heading to Ukrainian ports via the Kerch Strait for months and the entire area has been under a persistent electronic warfare blanket, with GPS jamming being a regularly observed occurrence. Russia has also reinforced its military capabilities on the eastern shore of the Sea of Azov. 

Google Maps

A map of the region shows how the nearly land-locked body of water can be controlled via Kerch Strait. With Russia seizing Crimea to the west back in 2014 and Russian-backed separatists holding territory in eastern Ukraine, it isn't hard to imagine Russian designs for connecting those to areas together and controlling all of the Sea of Azov and severely wounding Ukraine in the process. Doing so would likely mean an all-out war between Ukraine and Russia, and such a regional conflict could spread rapidly to become one global in scale. But just making Ukraine's ports on the Sea of Azov useless would be a huge hit to Ukraine on many levels and could weaken the country's ability to fight in the future substantially. 

Now, military capabilities from both countries are pouring into the area and an outright conflict has never been more possible between the two bitter neighbors. 

After calling an emergency war cabinet meeting, President Poroshenko ordered the country's entire military to be ready for all-out conflict. Poroshenko has been warning of this exact type of circumstance for months now, stating a month ago:

"We are getting ready to repel Russian aggression from sea in the Sea of Azov area. Powder should be kept ready."

What's could very well come next is an outpouring of anti-Russian sentiment on the streets of Kiev and Russian cyber attacks at least on Ukraine's ability to access and send information to the outside world, and possibly much more. Russia could also begin an electronic warfare operation around the Sea of Azov to limit Ukrainian forces' ability to communicate and navigate the area. A pointed information warfare campaign is almost a given considering Moscow's recent track record. 

We should also see NATO reconnaissance aircraft begin to push into the area on a much higher tempo than in the past so that an up to date picture of Russia's electronic order of battle can be obtained, as well as critical intelligence on force movements and posture, as well as other intelligence products, such as communications intelligence, to get an idea of what Russia's intentions are.

A standoff around the Kerch Strait is almost inevitable at this point, but what how far this escalates militarily has a lot to do with Russia's intentions. If Russian forces planned this event and it was not some fluke incident – which seems unlikely – then they likely had a larger outcome in mind. If this was a saber-rattling move aimed at moving forward Russia's creeping control of the Sea of Azov by installing a short blockade, we could see a move to de-escalate not long after an initial standoff and Russian show of force. If the blockade was planned to be long-term in nature, then that's a whole other and much more complex geopolitical and military problem.

Regardless, the chances for an unintended spark to set the region on fire has risen drastically. The next 24 hours will be quite perilous and we can only hope the international community will step in and try to negotiate some sort of de-escalation deal.  

In an official statement, the Ukraine Government seems to be pushing for rapid external involvement in order to keep this incident from morphing into a full-blown conflict—one that could be very bloody and that they have a questionable chance of winning, quite frankly. The statement reads:

Provocative actions of the Russian Federation in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov have transgressed all boundaries and become aggressive.

Ships of the Russian Federation, in violation of freedom of navigation, unlawfully used force against the ships of Ukrainian Naval Forces.

We consider such aggressive actions as a violation of the norms of the UN Charter and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Ukraine will take all appropriate measures to ensure diplomatic and legal response.

We will also inform our partners about the aggressive acts of the Russian Federation in the Sea of Azov. Such actions pose a threat for security of all states of the Black Sea Region, thus demand clear reaction of international community.

We will continue to update this post as the aftermath of this incident plays out.

Update: 1:00pm PST—

Here is an updated official statement on the incident from Ukraine:

On Sunday, November 25 a group of vessels, namely two small-sized 'Berdiansk' and 'Nikopol' armored artillery boats and the 'Yany Kapu' (Yanı Qapı) tugboat of Ukraine's Navy were carrying out a planned transfer from the port of Odesa to the port of Mariupol of the Sea of Azov.

Notification about the transfer plans was done in advance in accordance with international rules to ensure safe navigation.

The Russian dispatcher service refused to ensure the right to freedom of navigation, guaranteed by international agreements.

Though a 2003 treaty designates the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters, Russia first stopped Ukrainian navy vessels from entering the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait by placing a huge cargo ship beneath a Russian-controlled bridge.

After that, contrary to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Treaty between Ukraine and the Russian Federation on Cooperation in the Use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, Russian ships – Sobol-class patrol boats, the 'Don' coast guard ship, Mangust-class patrol boats, and the 'Suzdalets' corvette – carried out openly aggressive acts against the ships of the Ukrainian Navy. According to the Ukrainian Navy, Russia open fire at small-sized 'Berdiansk' and 'Nikopol' armored artillery boats. The boats have been damaged and lost ability to move. The 'Yany Kapu' (Yanı Qapı) tugboat also lost ability to move following Russian assault. Six Ukrainian crew members have been wounded.
Russian special forces have captured all the three Ukrainian ships.

All illegal actions have been recorded by the crews of the ships and the command of Ukraine's Navy and reports will be handed over to the respective international agencies.

The President of Ukraine is now holding a military cabinet meeting.

UKRAINE CONSIDERS RUSSIAN ACTIONS AS ACT OF AGGRESSION.

Russians are claiming that the Ukrainian ships are now heading back to Berdyansk. We are checking this information.
The President of Ukraine has condemned Russia’s violation of norms of the international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. He has called international community to condemn Russian actions and introduce sanctions against Kremlin.

Update: 1:27pm PST—

It looks like Ukraine is expecting the worst. U.N. Security Council and NATO will probably announce emergency meetings.

Update: 1:59pm PST—

Russia has confirmed that it seized the Ukrainian Navy vessels. So this seems to also be a prisoner situation as well, at least at this point. They also confirmed that they fired weapons during the incident and that "three wounded military servicemen of the Ukrainian armed forces received medical assistance." More here:

Here's another view of the ramming:

Here's NATO's statement:

Update: 3:00pm PST—

There are now reports that the Ukranian government has moved to institute Martial Law and that the country's parliament, known as the Verkhovna Rada or just the Rada, is also looking to formally declare a state of war with regards to Russia. 

This could include the activation of reserve forces and an increase in the alert status for all personnel deployed along Ukraine's eastern front with both Russia proper and the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The latter areas are under the partial control of Russian-backed separatist forces.

Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko has made it clear that a declaration of Martial Law would not lead to offensive operations outside of Ukraine's borders. He also reiterated support for the two so-called Minsk agreements, which have sought to provide for a political settlement over the status of the country's eastern separatist areas. 

In addition, Ukranian protesters in Kiev have set tires alight, fired flares, burned paper boats, and are otherwise demonstrating outside of the Russian Embassy. Some individuals are chanting "death to Russia."

Update: 3:40pm PST—

Russia's state-owned Channel 1 television station has put out the theory, without evidence, that the incident in the Kerch Strait was the product of a coordinated between unspecified members of the U.S. government and Ukranian authorities to up-end an upcoming meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit, which will begin in Argentina on Nov. 30, 2018. Putin reportedly proposed some form of referendum on the status of Donetsk and Luhansk during a summit in the Finnish capital Helsinki in July 2018. The U.S. government later denied that it was considering any such proposal.

Channel 24, another state-run outlet, later reported that that Ukranian vessels had turned back in the face of the blockade and did not mention the exchange of fire or the seize of Ukranian ships. Given what we have seen in the past, it is highly likely that Russian state-run and quasi-state media will seek to distract, deflect, and offer misinformation and disinformation about the incident. 

Reported Russian language audio of radio communications between the Russian and Ukranian vessels during the inciting incident in the Kerch Strait has also emerged. One translation suggests that the three Ukrainian vessels declared that they were moving through the region as per existing agreements even after the Russians fired on them and brought them to a halt.

Update: 4:10pm PST—

Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine's top human rights official, says she is unaware of the location and status of the Ukranian sailors that Russia detained during the Kerch Strait incident. 

Update: 4:15pm PST—

The European Union (EU), of which Ukraine is not a member, has issued the following statement:

The tensions in the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait have increased dangerously  today, after an incident this morning between Russian and Ukrainian  naval vessels as the latter were attempting to pass through the Kerch  strait as well as subsequent developments, including the closure of the  strait for traffic by Russian authorities and reported seizures of  Ukrainian vessels and shots being fired at them.

We expect Russia to restore freedom of passage at the Kerch Strait and urge all to act with utmost restraint to de-escalate the situation immediately.

As clearly stated by the High Representative at the European  Parliament recently, the events in the Sea of Azov are a demonstration of how instability and tensions are bound to rise when the basic rules of international cooperation are disregarded. The construction of the  Kerch Bridge took place without Ukraine's consent and constitutes another violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. It has led, in parallel with the militarization of the Azov Sea, to tougher controls on naval traffic in the strait. The European Union expects Russia to stop the inspections. 

The EU does not and will not recognize the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia.

Update: 4:20pm PST—

Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko has appealed to the EU, parties to the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, and those countries participating in the Normandy format to "protect Ukraine." Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Russia, United States, and the United Kingdom signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, which gave security assurances to the post-Soviet republics regarding their territorial integrity. The Normandy format refers to a diplomatic bloc consisting of Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine, which produced the aforementioned Minsk agreements.

Update: 4:40pm PST—

Russia's Embassy in the United States has Tweeted out a Russian Foreign Ministry statement from Nov. 21, 2018, that says Russia holds "Ukraine and the states that support its provocative actions" responsible for "further aggravation of the situation in the Azov Sea-Kerch water area." This press release does not make any mention of the 2003 agreement outlining both countries' rights to use the body of the water.

 

Update: 5:10pm PST—

Per U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council regarding the situation in and around the Kerch Strait is set to occur at 11:00 AM on Nov. 26, 2018.

We have finished our updates to this piece and our continuing coverage of this incident can be found here.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com