Ukraine and the West have several potential options to countervail Russian preponderance in the Azov Sea. First, Ukraine can try to send naval forces, preferably together with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) vessels, in order to enforce Kyiv’s freedom of navigation rights through the Kerch Strait and in the Azov Sea, where Ukraine’s strategically important ports of Mariupol (Mariupil) and Berdyansk are located. Indeed, even the Washington-based Atlantic Council recently called for such freedom-of-navigation operations by the United States Navy (Pravda, September 2; Atlanticcouncil.org, August 29;Interlegal.com.ua, April 4, 2016). Such actions, however, would presumably be incredibly confrontational for Moscow and could even erupt into a military incident between US and Russian forces in the area. A more peaceful solution for Ukraine, therefore, would be to find an alternative waterway to reach the Azov Sea.
Indeed, this is Kyiv’s second option: to build an artificial alternative waterway—the “Syvash Canal”—to access its Azov Sea ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk. Reportedly, this idea was offered already in 2015 by Ukrainian engineering company UkrHydroProject (Ukrop, April 1, 2015). The initial proposal was to construct a canal 120 kilometers long, 100 meters wide, and 15 meters deep across the Perekop Isthmus (just north of occupied Crimea), which is controlled by the Ukrainian authorities. Such a waterway would effectively turn Crimea into an artificial island. For years, this idea was referred to mainly on pro-Russian websites. However, in 2017, the proposed canal project popped up again as an “electronic petition” on the official website of the president of Ukraine (President.gov.ua, August 29). Nevertheless, the project’s feasibility is probably relatively low because of Ukrainian state’s difficult financial situation and a lack of clear political will from its politicians.
In the meantime, Ukraine has announced it intends to send the hopper dredger Meotida and the icebreaker Belousov to the Azov Sea in order to deepen the maritime ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol (Vpk-news.ru, September 14). Plans for dredging excavations in the Azov Sea date back to August 2015 (Mtu.gov.ua, August 2015). The sudden decision to send in these ships likely stems from Ukraine’s offer to welcome US military naval vessels for port calls along the Azov coast, or it could also be somehow related to the US maritime operations center being set up in Ochakov (Riafan.ru, September 14). In addition, Kyiv may want to test Moscow’s reaction and see whether or not Russia will allow the dredger and icebreaker unfettered passage through the Kerch Strait (Blackseafleet-21.com, September 16).
Current tensions regarding the Sea of Azov are not the first time Russia and Ukraine quarreled over this body of water. In 2003, a territorial dispute broke out over Tuzla Island, in the middle of the Kerch Strait. Ultimately, both sides found a temporal solution and signed an accord the same year, but neither Russia nor Ukraine officially adopted the document. The status of the Azov Sea, according to international law, is rather vague, particularly because the 1936 Montreux Convention does not cover it. Thus, the main guarantors of security of this sea are Ukraine and Russia, although the pivotal principle of freedom of navigation there and via the Kerch Strait remains in place. Back in 2015, a group of Ukrainian parliamentarians broached the possibility of Ukraine withdrawing its adherence to the 2003 bilateral accord with Russia (Gordonua.com, July 16, 2015). For now, however, Kyiv is still willing to behave according to the principles enshrined in this document—that is, that both states have a say in the passage of third countries’ naval forces into the Azov Sea (Interlegal.com.ua, April 4, 2016).
Ukrainian concerns over its dwindling control over the Azov Sea are difficult to address in the current circumstances, and the following issues directly impact this situation:
First, any attempts by NATO or the US alone to enter to the Azov Sea could likely trigger a belligerent Russian reaction.
Second, building the Syvash Canal north of Crimea for merchant and military vessels to enter the Azov Sea is essentially impossible in the near term because of political uncertainty in Kyiv and lack of funding.
Third, another way of countervailing Russia’s dominance in the Azov Sea is with a so-called “Mosquitoes Fleet” strategy, whereby the main element of the navy becomes small, agile vessels (see EDM, March 9). This type of force structure is particularly suitable for the Azov Sea, which has a depth of no more than 14 meters. Unfortunately, Ukraine has limited facilities to build such vessels after losing access to the important More shipyard, in Feodosia (Crimea). Despite this, Ukraine is actively building small, armored Gurza-, Kentavr- and Lan-class boats. A serious problem will be how to transport those vessels to the Azov Sea if Russia blocks Ukraine’s passage through the Kerch Strait. One option could be to deliver the ships overland by train or assemble them in Berdyansk or Mariupol.
Fourth, if Ukraine fails to act, it could be entirely deprived of its Azov coastline in a year or two, and left with maritime access only between Ochakov and Odessa. This would result in further harm to the Ukrainian economy: prior to 2014, Azov ports handled 12 percent of Ukraine’s shipping, and this proportion has already dropped to just 9 percent (Eir.pstu.edu, May 26).
Fifth, Russia is gravely concerned that Ukraine could try to sabotage the Kerch Bridge using unconventional or special forces.
Sixth, in order to avoid a direct conflict with Ukraine, Russia will likely utilize Donbas separatist forces and their access to the Azov Sea. Part of this strategy appears to be the formation of a Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) naval force in Novoazovsk (Ostrov, February 29, 2016).
In such a complex environment, Kyiv will need to act carefully but decisively if it does not want to lose its access to the Azov Sea over the coming months and years.