Moscow’s justification for what it has done is that it is planning naval exercises in the region and wants to avoid accidental clashes. And the Russian Foreign Ministry has stated that, therefore, this move in no way represents either a violation of international law or a threat to Ukraine and its partners (RIA Novosti, April 15). But as the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry pointed out, “such actions by the Russian Federation are the latest attempt to violate the norms and principles of international law” because “they usurp Ukraine’s sovereign rights as a littoral state since Ukraine has the right to regulate maritime shipments in these areas of the Black Sea ”(Kmu.gov.ua, April 15).
Not surprisingly, Kiev has called on the international community to support it against this latest application of Russian pressure, especially since this action is clearly a violation of international law. European Union officials have expressed “concern”, but as they did so in the wake of news that Western naval vessels were on their way to the Black Sea, their words are less clear as a condemnation of Moscow than some would like. Ukraine. to hear (Ec.europa.eu, RFI, April 16).
Neither Ukraine’s protests nor European expressions of concern, however, seem to have held back Moscow. Indeed, there have already been cases in the past week where Russian ships have blocked Ukrainian ships on waters where the two countries allegedly share control (Facebook.com/navy.mil.gov.ua, April 15). At the same time, Moscow has transferred 15 warships from its Caspian flotilla to the Azov Sea, an action that not only provides the Russian naval forces deployed there with expanded landing capacity, but also provides the border guard ships of the Federal Security Service (FSB) that had patrolled that body of water the opportunity to move into the Black Sea proper and be available for action against Ukraine elsewhere (see EDM, April 13; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, 14 April; Vestnik, April 19).
As a result, some Russian commentators are already speaking boldly about Russian “control” of the Azov Sea. Some Russian analysts even imply that Moscow’s latest moves are a wholly reasonable response to Turkey’s construction of a canal which, they say, Ankara has decided will not be subject to the Montreux Conventions and, therefore, will allow more Western military ships. to enter the Black. Sea and threaten Russia (APN, April 15; Echo Russia, April 14; Svobodnaya Pressa, April 20; Profile, April 19). That alarmist interpretation of the planned Istanbul Canal remains hotly contested (see Jamestown.org, April 14).
In any case, this is not the first time that the Sea of Azov has become a cockpit of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In Soviet times, it was seen as the internal water body of that country not subject to international law; but when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) disintegrated, both Kiev and Moscow claimed. This led to a 2003 deal, which, according to some analysts, left the sea in legal limbo and, today, is prompting some in Ukraine to argue that Kiev should rely not on that deal but on the UN Convention. on the Agreement on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) both Russia and Ukraine have ratified (Versia, 19 August 2018). Had Kiev filed such a claim in an international arbitration court, Moscow would certainly have responded by suggesting that the Ukrainian side was in breach of their 2003 agreement, a likelihood that may have prevented some in the West from expressing more support (Gordon, July 11. , 2018; Krym Realii, September 3, 2018).
At various times since it occupied the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, Russia has sought to take full control of the Sea of Azov or at least to put itself in a position to block Ukrainian shipping or the entry of third-party ships into that body. of water. In the summer of 2018, for example, as it did again, Russia introduced ships from its Caspian Flotilla into the Azov Sea (see EDM, May 31, 2018; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 5, 2018). After doing so, Moscow stopped 148 ships allegedly for “inspection” and even attacked three small Ukrainian military vessels trying to pass through the Kerch Strait (see EDM, March 20, 2019; Interfax, July 16, 2018). But in the months that followed, Russia withdrew from such offensive and illegal actions and withdrew its Caspian Flotilla ships to their home area.
Over the next two years, Russia nevertheless continued to assert its power to control access to the Azov Sea by carrying out inspections that delayed shipments to Ukrainian ports and discouraged international companies from using them. In addition, Moscow has at various points declared large exclusion zones in the theater in the name of Russian military exercises (see EDM, January 23, 2020 and January 14, 2021). The current situation is of particular concern for three main reasons.
- First, the ships of the Caspian Flotilla are back.
- Secondly, FSB ships that had been in the Azov Sea are now acting in direct support of the Russian Black Sea fleet (Svobodnaya Pressa, April 19).
- And third, what Moscow is doing in the Sea of Azov could provide direct support for a land invasion.
As a result, these latest Russian actions in a relatively few stretch of water have focused on calling for both more attention and a tougher response from the West.