Protecting sovereignty - How to resist Russian pressure in Sea of Azov?

Author : Volodymyr Pylypenko

Source : 112 Ukraine

Russia is strengthening its military presence in the Azov Sea. Experts warn: our territory can become a new springboard for the aggressive actions of the Kremlin
22:47, 26 September 2018



The zone of increased economic pressure

After the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine has automatically lost control over hundreds of kilometers of the sea state border and the coastline. In particular, Kerch was taken from us, and with it, Russia took the "keys", thanks to which the port-industrial complexes of the Azov Sea (Berdyansk and Mariupol) are connected with the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic.

But this was not enough for the aggressor. Today, Russian border guards have stepped up administrative pressure on foreign vessels bound for Ukrainian ports. We see the paradox - they do it without a formal violation of the Treaty between Ukraine and Russia on cooperation in the use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait (hereinafter - the Treaty). After all, the Treaty provides freedom of navigation in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait to merchant ships and warships under the flag of Ukraine or the Russian Federation, and ships under foreign flags do not have such freedom. That is, border guards of both states parties to the Treaty have the right to stop them for inspection and verification.

Related: Violations of Russia in Azov Sea should be stopped under Law of Sea Treaty, - Poroshenko

It is clear that while Kerch was under Kyiv's control, mutual assistance to the speedy passage of ships was profitable both for us and for Moscow. But since the annexation of Crimea, Russia has felt itself entitled to regulate the "flows" of maritime transport solely. In particular, it began to conduct long and meaningless inspections of vessels of third countries, which are sent to Ukrainian ports.

The logic is clear: delays cause losses to both the local economy and the state as a whole.

In early June, provocations by the Russian Federation almost led to a halt in the work of the Mariupol Commercial Sea Port. A simple ship inspection due to the fault of Russian border guards can last from 10 to 30 hours. Shipowners lose tens of thousands of dollars. Not to mention the losses that other contractors incur: customers, suppliers, freight companies, freight forwarders, and the like.

The fishermen were also in danger. Over the years, due to the lack of a border in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, fishing vessels of both states worked within the entire water area of these facilities. After the annexation of Crimea, both banks of the Kerch Strait became "Russian," as a result of which Moscow actually exercises its jurisdiction over the object. Accordingly, the Russian government believes that since there are no Ukrainian waters there, Ukrainian fishermen should leave the place.

Related: Protecting sovereignty - How to resist Russian pressure in Sea of Azov?

From Russia’s point of view, the seizure of the Crimean peninsula had almost no effect on the status of the Sea of Azov. Moscow cynically believes that since this water body has seawater under the jurisdiction of both states, users from both states should have the right to continue working within the entire marine area.

It looks like this: "It's OK that we stole Crimea from you, it’s OK that we finance terrorists and kill you - let us fraternally fish in the Sea of Azov together." I think we already have enough "common things" with Russia. Already today, it is necessary to strengthen the protection of the state border in the Azov Sea. Moreover, many cases of violation of borders from both sides are known.

I note that, in addition to economic pressure, the aggressor successfully implements political and psychological pressure on Ukraine, strengthening the military presence in the Azov Sea. According to the data that appeared this summer, there are four times more Russian border guards in the Azov region than similar Ukrainian units. Boats, armored cars, airplanes, helicopters - all this, obviously, should testify to Putin's determined intentions to turn Ukraine into a continental state.

Under such circumstances, the scenario of the naval blockade is not so fantastic. It is not difficult for Moscow to create the appropriate conditions.

Related: Army, Border Guard units hold drills on Sea of Azov coast

How Kyiv should react? We should be prepared for a legal confrontation in international courts. To do this, it is necessary to enlist the support of international organizations and to understand the legal context of the situation. Indeed, understanding this context makes it possible to assess the quality of Ukraine's foreign policy regarding the delimitation of the state border with the Russian Federation.

Indivisible Sea

The problem of delineation, or delimitation of maritime spaces, is not without reason considered to be the most difficult in international maritime law. These are serious political and economic interests, the implementation of which often goes beyond the framework of bilateral relations, influencing the regional status quo.

In times of the Soviet Union, the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait had a legal status of the inland sea waters of the Union. After its disintegration, the re-definition of the status of these facilities depended directly on the agreement between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, professional circles spoke a lot about the need to urgently establish the borders of sovereignty and the sphere of competence of each of the states in the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait. But the need for such a border was considered only by the Ukrainian side. Russia has only mimicked interest.

Related: Military base in Sea of Azov to use infrastructure of commercial ports

In the Treaty between Ukraine and Russia on the Ukrainian-Russian state border from January 28, 2003, agreements were reached on the delimitation of the land segment of the Ukrainian-Russian border from the junction of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus to the Azov Sea. Also, for the first time, the position on internal waters was officially considered, namely in Art. 5: "... nothing in this Treaty shall prejudice the positions of Ukraine and the Russian Federation regarding the status of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait as internal waters of the two states."

This norm can be considered the first mistake of Ukrainian diplomacy in the context of the struggle for Azov, since, according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10.12.1982, each state can independently determine the outer boundary of its territorial sea to 12 nautical miles from the extreme points of the coast.

If Ukraine achieved the status of international waters for the Sea of Azov, the presence of third-country ships would be allowed in its waters. According to the Convention, it was also possible to recognize the status of inland waters of the Sea of Azov by states that have opposite or adjacent coasts. Then the delimitation of the maritime boundary would be carried out on the basis of a midline along the water surface.

The key strategic issue that caused disagreements among the delegations was the ownership of the Kerch- Yenikale canal and the island of Tuzla, which, before the annexation of Crimea, were in the jurisdiction of Ukraine. Even then, 15 years ago, Russia categorically refused to recognize the Kerch- Yenikale canal as a Ukrainian territory, promoting the idea of its "joint use" and agreeing to set boundaries only on the bottom. Water spaces and the continental shelf of the Azov water area were proposed to be used together.

Related: Russia allows dangerous incidents, trying to provoke Ukrainian Navy in Sea of Azov

The fact is that the ownership of the Kerch-Yenikale canal means the possession of a single waterway for large cargo ships from the Black Sea to the ports of the Azov Sea and the Volga-Don basin. This is economically advantageous.

At the beginning of the 2000s, more than 8,500 vessels passed the channel annually, bringing to the Ukrainian treasury more than $ 150 million, of which about 10% - from Russian users. And promising deposits have been discovered in the Azov Sea: according to preliminary estimates, in the continental shelf, it is expected to extract 50 million tons of oil and about 200 billion cubic meters of natural gas.

The aggressor achieved his goal in 2003. Then the Treaty between Ukraine and the Russian Federation on cooperation in the use of the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait was signed, which is still in force. The document contains a number of norms that play into the hands of Moscow. In fact, the Treaty allows establishing a way of using the Sea of Azov in manual mode. In particular, the issue of delimitation of the maritime boundary was not solved in the new agreement.

It had to be clear that Moscow was not going to share anything. It is difficult to say whether the annexation of Crimea was planned already, but such actions of Russia are now difficult to be assessed differently than preparations for encroachment on the sovereign territory of our state.

Related: Ukraine to set naval base in Sea of Azov by late 2018

Ukraine without borders

The Russian Federation managed to establish legally that the waters of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait after the collapse of the USSR did not change their status, but remained internal waters of Ukraine and Russia. The fact that both states carried out and continue to exercise independent ownership of the respective maritime spaces did not become an argument.

Related: Border Guard Service sends 270 special operations soldiers to Azov, Black Sea

Unfortunately, none of our governments since 2003 has made Ukraine a civilized European state with delimited and demarcated borders with all its neighbors. In particular, in relations with Russia our leaders traditionally and in vain agreed to a legal solution of the problem at the level of bilateral agreements.

Meanwhile, the absence of the border led to disastrous consequences: unauthorized fishing, smuggling, pollution, destruction of biodiversity.

For years, the legal regime of the use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait has been determined through informal or semi-formal arrangements, without the formation of a border in accordance with international standards. This was a consequence of both the aggressive policy of the Russian Federation and the lack of strategic thinking among the national state leaders.

The Azov crisis - how to react?

One of the scenarios for Ukraine's reaction to the next imperial claims of Putin is the denunciation of the Treaty, the announcement of a 12-mile zone of territorial waters in the Azov Sea and their protection in accordance with the laws of Ukraine.

Related: Ukraine to rescind contract with Russia on joint usage of Sea of Azov

On the other hand, this step requires considerable preparation, in particular, economic and military, in view of the risk of escalation of the situation in the region.

It would be very good to hear the government's strategy in this matter. Indeed, we can’t protect our sovereignty with populism.

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