In May 2018, Russia opened a new front of confrontation with Ukraine, namely, it began to detain merchant ships in the Sea of Azov, which are being sent to the ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk. More than 100 vessels were detained during this time. As a result, Ukraine has both economic and reputational loss.
According to Minister of Infrastructure Volodymyr Omelyan, the entry of vessels into ports of Berdiansk and Mariupol has decreased by 10% due to the actions of Russia in the Sea of Azov, while Ukraine suffers losses of hundreds of millions of hryvnias.
And only three months after, President Petro Poroshenko convened a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council, where it was decided to strengthen the Ukrainian military presence in the Sea of Azov.
OstroV had a conversation with editor-in-chief of the BlackSeaNews portal, chairman of the supervisory board of the Maidan of Foreign Affairs fund Andrii Klymenko on the current situation in the Sea of Azov and what the actions of Russian border guards detaining vessels can lead to.
- How did the detentions in the Sea of Azov start?
- The first detention of a ship in the Sea of Azov was on May 17, 2018. We noticed that a steam ship stopped in the middle of the sea for several hours. This is not normal. And when we convinced that this stop was not accidental, but caused by the fact that the motorboats of the Coast Guard of the Russian Federation stopped and inspected these vessels, we took this situation for continuous monitoring.
Later we found out that the inspections of the ships began two weeks earlier, namely, on April 29 in the Kerch Strait.
- What were the grounds for such inspections?
- In late April - early May, they lied that all this was connected with the problem of safety of the Kerch Bridge. Then they refused this version, and began to talk about anti-terrorism measures during the examinations. Now they just say "in connection with the legislation of the Russian Federation" without going into any details.
- How do these examinations happen?
- The boarding team of the Coast Guard of the FSB of the Russian Federation (we call it the Coast Guard of the FSB for short) joins the vessel that goes to Mariupol or Berdiansk. It completely checks the documents of the vessel, cargo and crew, interrogates its members and inspects the vessel.
There are three stages of checks. The first is an anchorage in the Kerch Strait, where all ships that go to the Sea of Azov get to. According to the rules, they become anchored and wait permission from the despatchers of the Kerch Strait that it is possible to go further towards the Azov Sea. Earlier, this waiting time was up to two hours. Now it has increased several dozen times. After the vessel passes this check (and Russian border guards visited it), it further follows towards Mariupol, they are again stopped by Russian border guards in the Sea of Azov and are being inspected.
- How does this happen in the Sea of Azov?
- The vessel receives an order to stop by radio. Then the coast guard motor boat or ship moored to it, the same actions which were in the Kerch Strait are made, the corresponding report is signed, and the vessel can go further. It is interesting that the captain of the vessel must sign a document that he has no claims to the Coast Guard, which checked it. By the way, this explains the fact that there are no public complaints from them.
Then this vessel arrives, for example, in Berdiansk, with a delay, as a result of what there are failures in the work of the port and specific carrier. After that, the ship needs to take out the cargo, and on the way back, it can also be detained in the Sea of Azov for inspection. And, finally, the third stage of the check is an anchorage in the Sea of Azov, at the entrance to the Kerch Strait, where the ship again expects the "approval" from the dispatcher of the Kerch port to enter the Black Sea.
- How legitimate are these checks and detentions?
- Officially, the Russian party violates nothing. According to the agreement between the Russian Federation and Ukraine on cooperation in the use of the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait concluded in 2003, the Sea of Azov is a joint inland waters of Ukraine and Russia. That is, Ukraine does not have a sea border in the Sea of Azov. No matter how much we refer to the law of the sea, in fact the parties seized the Sea of Azov from the sphere of effect of the law of the sea in 2003. The same treaty says that even warships in Russia and Ukraine have the right to be anywhere in the Sea of Azov.
- In other words, theoretically, Russian warships can approach Mariupol at any moment, and this will be considered a legal action?
- That's right.
- How many vessels have been detained in the Sea of Azov since May 17, 2018?
- According to our information, on September 1, 2018, only 100 ships were detained, 65% of them - with cargo. That is, the Russian Coast Guard of the FSB most of all delays ships that come with cargo from Mariupol and Berdiansk. In May, we recorded 21 detentions, in June - 25, July - 40, August - 14. We see that the number of detentions has sharply dropped in the last month, and we explain this by weather conditions. Most of the Russian border ships in the Sea of Azov are boats or small ships about the size of a tug, which have restrictions on the storm and wind. Accordingly, they cannot put to sea in bad weather conditions. In addition, we do not exclude that the Russian Federation deliberately slowed down with the detentions in August after the international reaction.
I would also like to draw your attention to the fact that almost a third of the detentions of ships in the Azov Sea occurred at a distance within 12 miles from the coast. If we had a sea border (12-mile zone), this would have not occurred (12-mile zone is a generally accepted world practice). We even specially pointed out particularly insolent facts of detentions: in May, a Turkish vessel was detained six miles from the Berdiansk Spit, and in July - an Estonian ship 3 miles from the Ukrainian coast - this is practically on the beach. These were brazen demonstrative actions aimed at "showing Ukraine its place".
- How long are the detentions of ships following to Ukraine by Russian border guards?
- Initially, we monitored the situation only on the detentions of ships directly in the Sea of Azov. But since the end of June, we have shifted the focus of our attention to anchorages in the vicinity of the Kerch Strait. It turned out that instead of a two-hour moorage, the vessels were idle for 20-30 hours. In July, the average delay of the ship in the direction of the Azov Sea was 28.4 hours, in August, this figure increased to 73.1 hours. And the time of delays of some ships reached 160-170 hours. But most of all we were amazed by the time of moorage of ships that follow from the Sea of Azov (respectively, with cargo from Ukraine) to the Black Sea: in July, the average delay of one vessel was 57.5 hours, in August - 87.6 hours.
Russians understand perfectly well that it is more efficient economically to detain vessels with cargo than vessels in ballast.
- These ships consume more energy, and their moorage costs are more expensive. But if earlier they kept the steamer at the entrance for a day and at the exit - for three days, now they began to increase the detention at the entrance as well, that is, the ship is being detained for three days both at the entrance and exit.
- What is the point of these detentions?
- There is no much economic sense in the detention of ships in the Sea of Azov, after all, the inspection itself lasts about three hours. This is a demonstration effect, demoralization; this is outlined by the media and so on. But the main economic effect is provided precisely because of delays in the area of the Kerch Strait. The traffic controller does not authorize the passage of the vessel through the strait before it is inspected by a group of border guards, who come whenever they want. This is all aimed at discouraging shipowners from going to Mariupol and Berdiansk. And hints are being made as well. They say, "what did you forget there?", "is it really not enough work in other places?" and so on.
Since mid-August, the Russian side has begun to implement these delays even more carefully. The port of Mariupol can simultaneously take a dozen vessels, Berdiansk port - around 7-8. From August 14 to August 21, Russians did not let a single vessel to the Sea of Azov. Accordingly, the queue of those who went to Ukraine grew. During this time, those ships that previously were in Mariupol and Berdiansk, were loaded and went in the opposite direction, and these ports were empty for several days in a row. All port capacities, warehouses and so on were idle. Then the Russian border guards gave a "green light", and simultaneously all 12 vessels went to Mariupol. Thus, a queue was created.
This is a huge economic loss for Ukraine. In addition, these are reputational risks. After all, shipowners and ship operators, who are aware of the current problem, can at some point abandon this route and look for alternative ways.
- Can the Russian Federation at any time stop the passage of ships following to the Sea of Azov altogether?
- Putin has a "golden key" from the Kerch Strait, which appeared after the annexation of the Crimea. Together with the peninsula, they seized the Ukrainian part of the Kerch Strait, that is, Russia can close the Sea of Azov at any time for Ukraine, as soon as they deem it necessary. Therefore, one should not think that the situation will somehow improve if we sit quietly and do nothing. It will not get better. Russia wants to kill Ukraine as a state, so that Mariupol was in the "DNR", and the "DNR" was part of the federal Ukraine.
- What the reaction of Ukraine to these detentions should be like?
- It is worth remembering two truths: Russia cannot be trusted and it always goes on until it gets slapped in the face. If, at some stage, some negotiating mechanisms are included, they perceive it as a weakness. The Russian Federation behaves like a domestic bandit with all the appropriate habits. Therefore, a tough reaction from Ukraine is needed. After all, if we say that the Sea of Azov is the internal waters of Russia and Ukraine, and Russian border guards have the right to detain and inspect vessels, then Ukrainian border guards can also do the same with Russian vessels.
- Why don’t they do it?
- We are often asked this question by representatives of European countries. We are forced to answer that either there was no team or they are afraid to create an excuse for open war, or there is no diesel fuel, or they are so used to "horrify" fishermen in the Sea of Azov that they cannot do anything else. But in general, foreign diplomats do not understand the lack of response from Ukrainian border guards.
But it is worthwhile to understand that the Russian Federation has huge sea traffic through the Sea of Azov, this is one of the main Russian export routes for grain. And in some places it passes very close to the Ukrainian coast (in the 12-mile zone). If Ukraine denounces the agreement on the use of the Sea of Azov, and establishes a 12-mile protection zone of the sea border, it will become very difficult for Russian vessels to navigate the sea, as their routes will enter the territorial waters of Ukraine.
In addition, we propose to introduce sanctions against Russian ports of the Azov and Black Seas. Not in connection with the detention of the ships, but in connection with the fact that they provide traffic to the occupied territory of the Crimean peninsula. And these are the ports of the Caucasus, Rostov, Yeysk, Azov, Taganrog, Temryuk, Novorossiysk and others.
- And this would work?
- Of course. Imagine that such a large port as Novorossiysk would lose its right to take foreign loans in connection with sanctions, or international companies would stop cooperating with it. Believe me, this would be tangible.
In the end, we can either tolerate or resist. We need to hit back. To do this, we need a sea border and new sanctions.
- Recently, at a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council, a decision was taken to strengthen the naval presence of Ukraine in the Sea of Azov. In particular, two armored boats ("Lubny" and "Kremenchuk") have already been transferred there. Are these sufficient measures?
- This decision is the result of mass support for our position in the Ukrainian and international media and pressure on the Ukrainian authorities by foreign allies. In addition to strengthening the military presence in the Sea of Azov, this issue will also be raised at the UN General Assembly. Thus, Ukraine's position to protect its export routes and ports becomes more weighty and tough. These are insufficient measures, but this is some kind of reaction.
- Can such a reaction provoke Russia to close the Kerch Strait?
- Everything can happen. I would not rule out this option. But this decision is unlikely to depend on our actions and the reaction of the international community. It will depend on the plans that Russia wants to implement with respect to Ukraine. But if we remain silent, it will happen for sure.
By the way, Putin can block the sea traffic to Berdiansk and Mariupol when he wants to sharply aggravate the social situation in these regions, realizing that there is still a significant part of the "Russian world" supporters. These options must also be foreseen and be prepared for. For example, redirecting cargo to the ports of the Black Sea. Businesses must have options in case of a complete blocking of traffic. This means that the railway, cars and so on should be ready.
- You said that one of the reasons for the detention of ships in the Sea of Azov is the training of Russian FSB agents. Could you clarify that?
- They must conduct exercises constantly. Having detained 100 ships in the Sea of Azov, they trained well and can use this experience when they begin to block Odessa, Mykolaiv, Kherson and other ports.
- Is there danger on the Black Sea as well?
- Of course. This is an economic war and one must be prepared for various options. Since February 2014, simultaneously with the occupation of the Crimea, all the drilling rigs and oil platforms have been captured by Russian special forces in the northwestern part of the Black Sea. Two main sea routes pass through them: one from the Bosporus to the Ukrainian ports (Mykolaiv, Odessa, Kherson), and the second one - towards Batumi. Russian military garrisons are everywhere on these oil platforms, they are equipped with all modern means of control, and they are patrolled round the clock by the warships of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation.
The Russians are already located at our captured shelf plate. And if earlier they told stories about the safety of the Kerch Bridge, tomorrow they will say that according to their information, the ship that goes from Odessa to Batumi is mined and intends to undermine the drilling rigs. So there will be stops and inspections of ships in the Black Sea. This situation is easy to imagine and we need to be ready for this.
- How should we prepare now?
- It is necessary to officially say that there are such risks. Military-diplomatic and other response plans should be developed. People need to know how to act.
Interviewed by Vladyslav Bulatchik, OstroV