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Foreign Policy Research Institute

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The Kremlin is gradually moving towards its goal of ousting NATO from the region and turning not only the Sea of Azov into its own lake, but also the Black Sea


On June 23, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation announced that the coast guard ships and Russian aviation were compelled to open warning fire in the direction of the British destroyer HMS Defender, which allegedly entered the «territorial waters of Russia» near the annexed Crimea. In particular, Russian Su-24M fighters, according to the Russian side, dropped 4 high-explosive fragmentation bombs from the air in the direction of the British ship. The video published by the FSB of Russia shows, indeed, the coast guard ships opened fire, but in accordance with the order, it was not directed at the HMS Defender. Therefore, the reaction of the British Department of Defense was quite calm. The ministry stressed that the Russians at that time were carrying out practice shooting in that part of the Black Sea. And London objected that any shots were fired in the direction of a British warship, not to mention the dropping of any bombs on the way of its advance.

BBC correspondent Jonathan Beale, who was aboard the Defender destroyer, said that Russian ships approached 100 meters from the Defender, threatened to fire on the radio, in addition, there were about 20 Russian planes. In a video later released by the BBC, the ship's crew was put on alert, sailors wore special balaclavas made of fire-resistant material and protected the face in case of fire, so the British did not intend to change the course from Odesa to Georgia and were ready to fight back if necessary.

At the same time, the destroyer's commander Vincent Owen stated that the mission of the British ship is to maintain international order and uphold global peace and security. After that, the media reported that Boris Johnson himself had decided the destroyer will pass near the Crimea. Commenting on the situation, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom stressed that his country does not recognize Russian illegal annexation of Crimea, and it is part of the sovereign Ukrainian territory. «It was entirely right, that we should indicate the law and pursue the freedom of navigation the way we did», Johnson said.

According to international law, the British ship had every right to move along the chosen path, because the destroyer's course ran within 12 nautical miles (22 km) from the coast of Crimea. That is, in the zone of the territorial sea, where warships have the right of free passage. In addition, Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea prohibits a coastal state «to hamper the innocent passage of foreign ships through the territorial sea ... impose requirements on foreign ships which have the practical effect of denying or impairing the right of innocent passage». This route was not chosen by chance. First, London supported Ukraine and demonstrated its position of non-recognition of the Crimean peninsula occupation. Secondly, in this situation, the UK was guided by the principle of ensuring freedom of navigation, which was enshrined in the new concept of UK national security, which was adopted this year. After the Black Sea, HMS Defender intends to visit the South China Sea as part of an aircraft carrier group. In this region, Great Britain will also defend the principle of free navigation against the background of an aggressive policy of a more powerful actor - China. So, the action of the British near Crimea is an element of their grand strategy.

However, this event is important not only at the global level, in the context of confronting China, but also at the regional level, as the issue of Russia's aggressive actions at sea has long been out of international information space and is now back on the agenda. Ukraine has been under a naval blockade for several years. The Kremlin still systematically detains commercial ships in the Kerch Strait en route to / from Ukrainian ports in Azov.

In 2020, the average delay of ships bound for Berdyansk and Mariupol was 23.5 hours, in 2019 - 29.9 hours. The largest detention time was in November 2018 and was 115 hours! It should be noted that before the beginning of the naval blockade, the delay averaged 5-7 hours. In addition, the construction of the Kerch Bridge made it impossible for Panamax-type ships which accounted for more than 20% of all sea traffic of Ukrainian Azov ports to pass through the Kerch Strait. At present, Ukraine does not control three quarters of its own maritime space. In fact, the Russian Federation has already turned the Sea of Azov into its own lake. Such a destructive policy of Russia has led to a significant decrease in cargo turnover of the ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol, including due to the fact that carriers began to use the port of Novorossiysk more actively to avoid monetary costs due to detentions.

A complete blockage of the Sea of Azov would be a catastrophe for the economy of the eastern part of Ukraine. According to Andriy Klymenko, head of the Monitoring Group of the Black Sea Strategic Studies Institute, «currently 93% of exports are accounted for the Black Sea ports. Accordingly, only 7% are accounted for the ports of Azov. This is not critical, but significant. The amount of losses from the ongoing blockade is billions of hryvnias».  And the transfer of goods from Mariupol and Berdyansk to other ports of the Black Sea by rail will not solve the problem: «In 2018, businesses have tried to redirect freight traffic, but the capacity of the railway is extremely low». Even in case of modernization of the Ukrainian railway, Moscow will be able to detain ships heading to Odesa motivating this by the fact that the sea lanes are located near the exclusive economic zone of the occupied Crimea and near the Ukrainian drilling rigs seized by Russia.

Under such conditions, the stability of the Black Sea region is critically dependent on the actions of the North Atlantic Alliance. At present, we see a lack of adequate response from NATO. Indeed, the United Kingdom has demonstrated a strong position sending a destroyer near the occupied Crimea. However, the United Kingdom is only one of the 30 countries in the Alliance, and we do not see systematic and coordinated joint action by member states on Russia in the Black Sea region. It is significant that the North Atlantic Alliance did not adopt a strategy for the Black Sea at the June summit. At the same time, the Kremlin is gradually moving towards its goal of ousting NATO from the region and turning not only the Sea of Azov into its own lake, but also the Black Sea. One of the indicators of the creeping annexation of the Black Sea is the closure of sea areas for military exercises for several months. Russia has already created a so-called A2 / AD zone around Crimea, placing a powerful military group on the peninsula, including radar and troop control systems, as well as anti-ship defense and air defense systems. The militarization of Crimea has made Russia a major power in the Black Sea region, which, in particular, allows Moscow to project power into the Mediterranean region and the Middle East.

Thus, NATO member states must reconsider their policy of deterring Russia in the Black Sea, taking into account the Kremlin's aggressive, expansionist policy and large-scale military capabilities in the occupied Crimea. Despite the meeting of the US and Russian presidents in Geneva and the verbal agreement between the leaders of the two countries, NATO must be ready for provocations from Russian side in the near future, in particular during the joint military exercises of the alliance and Ukraine «Sea Breeze» and on the eve of the Crimean Platform summit. Within two months, the Russian Federation may resort to provocations and use them as an excuse to spread military aggression.