“Crimea, Ukraine, Moldova.” In late August 2008, with Russian troops in control of large chunks of Georgia, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner voiced his fears about Russia’s next targets. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov responded by accusing his counterpart of having a “sick imagination.” In retrospect, Kouchner’s imagination might have not been sick enough.
On Sunday, Russian gunboats opened fire on a Ukrainian naval convoy and rammed a tugboat before seizing it and two Ukrainian gunboats. They had been travelling from the Ukrainian port of Odessa, on the Black Sea, to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian vessels were trying to pass through the Kerch Strait that separates Russian-controlled Crimea from Russia. This marked a new phase in an emerging third – maritime – front between Ukraine and Russia, one likely to keep Europe busy for years to come.
On a recent trip to Ukrainian towns and villages by the Sea of Azov earlier this month, we saw how the situation on land has settled into a relative calm; both sides have dug in and fortified the front line. Assaulting it would now be extremely costly in manpower for either side.
Delays can cost a ship as much as $10,000 to $12,000 per day on each leg
But on the sea the situation is very different. There, the stage is set for two new crises of European security. One relates to freedom of navigation, the other to the economic viability of eastern Ukraine as a whole.
Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, then constructed a bridge from Russia to Crimea, it has been in effective control of both sides of the strait. It has significantly boosted its military capabilities in the Sea of Azov, and in recent months started to quietly strangle the freedom of navigation of all vessels entering Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov. The ramming this weekend belongs to this new trend. The United States and a handful of European states are currently making efforts to appear serious about supporting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. But when it comes to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, even European navies with the bolder governments behind them find it easier to tickle Chinese sensibilities on the other side of the world than to butt right up against Russian security sensitivities in Europe.
As for Ukraine’s economic security, large parts of its economy in the east depend on trade through ports on the Sea of Azov. Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea are farther away, access infrastructure is poor, and transport is more expensive. The region already faces deep economic problems: its infrastructure and production chains have been partly destroyed by the war, and exports entering through the port of Mariupol dropped 58 percent in recent years. Foreign investment has disappeared. And last month alone saw 13,500 ceasefire violations on just the Mariupol stretch of the front line.
For several months now, Russia has been slowly strangling Ukrainian commercial navigation into and from the Sea of Azov. Earlier this year, Russian border guards began stopping and checking commercial ships making for Ukrainian ports. Such delays can cost a ship as much as $10,000 to $12,000 per day on each leg. This makes Ukrainian exports less competitive on international markets, imports more expensive, and local consumers poorer – in a region that is already impoverished and traumatised by the war and large numbers of internally displaced persons.
All this represents a huge escalation in economic pressure on Ukraine. Russia has introduced all manner of sanctions on Ukraine before. But now it is not just a question of restricting Ukrainian exports to Russia, but a concerted effort to harm Ukrainian trade with Europe and the Middle East. This is no small matter because Ukraine exports more to Arab countries than to Russia. Effectively sealing the Kerch Strait is like Denmark preventing Russian ships from crossing the Danish straits, penning them in the Baltic Sea.
So, besides watching and expressing grave concern, what can Europeans and Americans do? Quite a lot, actually. First, they can demonstrate diplomatic and symbolic support for freedom of navigation into and around the Sea of Azov. Sending non-military ships into the sea would help sustain this principle. And no, Russia will not attack or ram third country ships.
Second, Europeans and Americans can adopt something of an economic offset strategy for Ukraine. Some of these measures can be cheap and symbolic, like donating a couple of tugboats, such as the one rammed in the latest incident. Beyond symbolism, they can invest in rebuilding the roads and railways that could link parts of eastern Ukraine to the rest of the country. And they can relax their restrictions on access to the European market for goods such as honey, grain, corn, and grape juice. Despite having a free trade area with Ukraine, the European Union retains quotas on several competitive Ukrainian exports.
Finally, it is time to take the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe offshore. The OSCE has been the major actor in monitoring conflicts across the Eurasian landmass, from the Balkans to Tajikistan. It currently has a monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine. But, given that Europe’s next security flashpoint is likely to be out on the water, the organisation should start monitoring the Sea of Azov as well – with drones and ships.
The Russian foreign ministry complained last week that Ukraine is trying to depict, even frame, Moscow as the aggressive party in the Sea of Azov to force the West to increase sanctions on Russia. If this is a real Russian fear, Moscow should be the first to invite international monitors into the Sea of Azov to set the record straight. Whatever one thinks of Russian or Ukrainian behaviour around the Sea of Azov issue, a good dose of international presence in what could become Ukraine’s third front line, after Crimea and Donbas, will only reduce the risks of future escalations on the Sea of Azov.
The original article was published on 27 November in Foreign Policy.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.