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Russia is trying to cut Ukraine off the Sea of Azov

Read the original text at Defence24.
Russia is trying to cut Ukraine off the Sea of Azov

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In the last three months, the activity of the Russian Federation in the Sea of Azov has significantly increased. Russians increasingly do not allow commercial vessels (which go to the Ukrainian ports and get out of them) to pass through the Kerch Strait without hindrance. Until 2014, the verification of the ship, which was detained by the Russian Federal Security Service, took about two hours. Now, this procedure lasts up to 88 hours. Russians specifically create some problems, so as a result, the cost of transporting goods produced, in particular, by the industrial enterprises of the southeast of Ukraine, increases. As the director of the Mariupol seaport Yuriy Balan says, the damage from delaying one vessel per day is 15 thousand dollars. Transport companies working with ports in Berdyansk and Mariupol suffer the most.

The increase in transportation costs and the inconvenience of delaying and inspecting vessels, in turn, lead to an increase in the prices of such services. Commander of the Ukrainian Navy Ihor Voronchenko notes that from the end of April to July of this year the Russian side has detained 116 merchant ships heading to the Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov and getting out of them. According to the Administration of the seaports of Ukraine, Russia’s FSB has detained 148 ships (July 16, these figures were quoted by Deputy Minister of Infrastructure Yuriy Lavrenyuk).

The Ukrainian side reports that such incidents take place every day. Russia's actions are not just an attempt to inflict damage on Ukrainians, but an attempt to bring Ukrainian ports to bankruptcy. Blocking Kyiv’s access to its ports can be interpreted as the intention to completely cut off Ukraine from the Sea of Azov, that is, turn it into the inland sea of the Russian Federation.
The Kremlin's actions are not limited to the political and economic sphere. Over the past three months, he has taken a series of steps aimed at building up his military presence in the region. According to the Ukrainian side, in the period from May to July, 18 warships appeared in the Sea of Azov, which previously were serving, in particular, in the Caspian Sea. There are at least 40 ships belonging to the border guard service and the Russian Navy in the ports of Azov. These are, for example, built in the Soviet era artillery boats of 1400 "Grif" project and 1204 "Shmel" project. As reported by the Ukrainian military portal, Russian forces in the Sea of Azov received reinforcements in the form of two "Shmel" boats and one "Grif-M" boat, which were transferred to Kerch (occupied Crimea). Also, the Russians have modern missile ships of 21631 "Buyan-M" Project equipped with "Caliber" missiles.

It should be emphasized that the "Buyan-M" ships are included in the Black Sea Fleet, and together with its other forces they can become an important factor influencing the situation in the Sea of Azov. Ukrainians consider Russian landing crafts, based in the immediate vicinity of Berdyansk and Mariupol, a serious threat. The Ukrainian side suggests that a relatively strong landing group is concentrated in the ports of Taganrog, Yeysk, and Primorsko-Akhtarsk. It most likely includes landing craft of the 11770 ("Serna") project, which can take 92 people on board, one tank or two armored personnel carriers, as well as landing craft of 21820 Project ("Dugong"), which can load 90 people, two tanks or four armored personnel carriers.  
The situation looks extremely unfavorable for the Ukrainian side since it does not have Navy structures in the Sea of Azov. Now, only the ships of the 23rd Mariupol Maritime Detachment subordinate to the border guard service can compete against the Russians. It consists of 18 units of marine equipment. In particular, these are "Grif" patrol boats, equipped with machine guns, and the patrol ship of 205P Project "Tarantul" with artillery units AK-230. In addition, the detachment has "Kalkan" patrol boats (project 50030), "Galiya", UMS-600 and one civil vessel confiscated from Turkish poachers (all of them are equipped with the machine guns). 

Seeing that the forces are unequal, and the Russian Federation suddenly began to build up its presence in this region, Kyiv understands that a serious threat appeared in the Azov direction. Ukrainian experts and politicians openly admit that they fear not only that Russia will deprive Ukraine of the opportunity to use the economic potential of the Sea of Azov (for example, trade routes), but also that it will decide to seize Mariupol and Berdyansk. According to Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Oleksandr Turchynov, an increase in the number of landing ships in the Azov ports will allow the Russians to conduct an operation in which the forces of the 8th, 49th and 59th armies of the Southern Military District will take part.
Now the Ukrainian security forces operating in the Sea of Azov area are not able to effectively protect the Ukrainian coast and the trade routes. Using the increasing disproportion of forces and the legal status of its water area, which is unprofitable for Kyiv (it is considered to be the "inland sea of Ukraine and Russia," and under the current treaty, Russian forces are allowed to approach the Ukrainian shores for a distance of 12 n miles), the Kremlin could conduct a series of successful provocations or use this region to achieve its military and political goals. The Ukrainian side tries to respond to Moscow's aggressive actions.

One example of demonstrating the readiness of the Ukrainians to defend their coast was the allocation of three sections between Berdyansk and Shyrokyne, where from June 1 to September 1, the exercises of maritime security forces, artillery and missile forces will take place. Ukraine also decided to modernize the "Donbas" ship of maritime security. In the coming months, Kyiv will try to neutralize or limit the superiority of Russians in the Sea of Azov, increasing the potential of its air and missile forces.

The situation will change in a favorable direction for Ukrainians, if the General Staff and the Navy command can fulfill the instructions of Petro Poroshenko, who on July 17 called for "stopping Russian provocations during the passage of the Kerch Gulf." As part of the order, it is possible, for example, to allocate Coast Guard ships to accompany merchant vessels in order to reduce the risk of their detention by the FSB. "I understand that there will be convoys escorting civilian ships from point A to point B and preventing FSB officers from conducting inspections, now this is the only way to solve the problem, other methods in a situation where the norms of international law do not work will not be effective," Mykhailo Samus, a member of the Ukrainian Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, stated.

It is difficult to say whether it will be possible to implement the plan in the near future. In turn, in the long term, Ukrainians can reduce the disproportion of forces by placing in the coastal zone platforms with the latest Ukrainian missiles "Neptune". It can also be expected that Kyiv would attempt to place the “Island” boats in the ports of the Sea of Azov, which Americans would transfer to Ukrainians or artillery boats of the 58155 project (Gyurza-M).
One thing is obvious now: Russia’s actions are dangerous for the Ukrainian economy, they demonstrate how Moscow can use its naval forces in order to start combat operations in favorable conditions that cannot be classified as an open conflict.
Michal Marek
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