Politico-military escalation around the Azov sea

By Andrew Wilson and Nina Bachkatov

For months it has been evident that the Azov Sea will be the next flash point between Russia and Ukraine, with in the background the later presidential election. At the moment, circulation in a sea most people barely cared about earlier is regulated under a bilateral treaty of 2003. The texts only mentioned that Ukrainian and Russia civilian and military ships will have freedom of navigation in the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait. It states too that no military ships from tiers countries can enter the Sea without the autorisation of both countries.

But the key question of the delimitation of the maritime borders has been a torn in the bilateral relations since then, especially after Maidan 1. At the core has been the control of the Kerch Strait between the Black and the Azov Seas. Ukraine demanded that the state border in the strait follow the administrative border that existed between Russia and Ukraine in Soviet times, which would effectively have turned the Azov Sea into an internal sea for Ukraine. This was unacceptable for Moscow as Russian trading ships would have to pay Ukraine significant sums to transit the Azov Sea to access the Black Sea. It would be detrimental to Russian fishermen and Moscow feared that NATO would build a base on the Azov Sea since Ukraine has announced that it wants to become a member of this military alliance. There was also the question of ownership of the energy deposits under the Sea.

Moscow proposed leaving most of the water area for joint use, claiming that it is the internal water of two different countries, and wanted defining the border along the shores. An unacceptable proposal for the Ukrainians. In a growingly polarised atmosphere, the two countries just managed to agreed to “avoid unilateral actions”.

The “reintegration of Crimea” into the Russian Federation opened a new chapter in the dispute. For Kiev, Crimea being Ukrainian territory, nothing changed concerning the rights of navigation in the Azov Sea. For Russia, it changed radically the situation. When Ukraine began to multiply blockades with the obvious intention to create economic chaos and turn Crimean population against Moscow’s rule, Russia came back with the old projects of the construction of a bridge, anchoring physically Crimea and Russian mainland. Russia was from then on controlling both sides of the Kerch Strait.

In the late incident (25th November), the most serious to date, both countries claimed to exercise their rights. Moscow says it respects “international naval rules” concerning the navigation in the Azov sea. Ukraine, supported by the West, argue that Crimea, and its maritime shores, are still Ukrainian territory. Both speak of “provocations” by the other side.

This incident followed numerous others, all hyped by the Ukrainian media up to the point that, after a previous incident, Deputy Foreign Minister Olena Zerkal declared on 20 July that the tension always existed but that “no captains nor ship owners have complained about Russian border patrols stopping and checking their vessels in the Sea of Azov… True, the Russian military presence in the Sea of Azov is greater than ours. And all international maritime law permits warships to stop civilian vessels for inspection”.

This time, president Poroshenko led the charge, calling the West to back his country ‘victim of Russian neo-imperialism’, and congratulating the sailors and border guards for their courage in defending motherland.

Evidently, both countries have been, and are, playing with fire in their attempt to show political and military muscles, including by pushing each other to make the step too much that will discredit Ukraine (in the case of Russia) or reinforce isolation from the West (in the case of Ukraine).

The declaration of the martial law is a dramatic measure to which President Poroshenko referred more than once since the Crimean war. For the opposition, it is an attempt to justify postponing presidential elections, limiting civil rights and controlling the media. They argue that with his support down to a single digit, the uniform of commander-in-chef seems more convincing than the grey suit of a failed president.

But there is also a question of timing. Since the summer, Western experts have echoed without much distance Ukrainian declarations presenting the Azov Sea as the next security threat to all the continent. The 25th November incident, with the officially recognised presence of Ukrainian security officers on the ships seized by the Russian border guards, intervenes a few days before the Putin-Bush meeting at the G20 not much popular in Washington; and a few weeks before a EU summit due to discuss the prolongation of the sanctions. As the summit has no chance to settle the main item on the agenda (the reforms of the eurozone), EU members will certainly make good use of the traditional rallying cry “Don’t let Russia divide us” to show unity and decisiveness.

But this is first of all an internal and a local affair.

Under the influence of a National Security Council dominated by ultras, Poroshenko had asked parliament support for a 60 days martial law, on all the territory. After stormy debates, the parliament controlled by his allies limited martial law to 30 days, and only on borders districts. More importantly, deputies fixed the date of presidential election on 31 march, preventing any postponement if Poroshenko wants to keep Western support. He is now left with the possibility, he will certainly use, to denounce Russia, interference in the election campaign to discredit his rivals.

On the spot, all immediate neighbours, including Turkey, have called for “dialogue” and want to prevent any further militarisation of the Sea. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, support Russia as they trust Moscow better than Kiev to guarantee the freedom of navigation in the Black and Azov seas to their ports of the Volga-Don basin.

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