Moscow’s arrest and detention of Ukrainian sailors in the Sea of Azov further increases the isolation of the Eastern Ukraine ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk on the northern shore of the Sea of Azov
On 25 November, Russian Coast Guard ships rammed Ukrainian vessels in international waters south of the Kerch Strait, and took 24 sailors hostage, sparking an international crisis.
Kiev, with US backing, is claiming that the bridge the Russians are building to connect annexed Crimea with the Russian mainland, is being used to choke the life out of the seaports of Mariupol and Berdyansk.
As a result of this undeclared blockade, says Kiev, Mariupol and Berdyansk, the gateways to Ukraine’s highly industrialised Donbas region, are suffering heavy losses estimated by the Ukraine’s infrastructure ministry at hundreds of millions of dollars. The Infrastructure Minister, Volodymyr Omelyan, said the Kremlin’s goal is to squeeze Ukraine out of its south-eastern territories.
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has called on NATO to send warships to the Sea of Azov.
Since 2014, when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and gained de facto control over the both shores of the Kerch Strait, the two Ukrainian seaports have lost half (ca 9 Mtpa) of their traditional cargo traffic. Mariupol has been forced to switch to a four-day working week and slim down the workforce.
This year, as Russia completed construction of the motorway part of its bridge over the Kerch Strait, it started impeding navigation of Ukrainian and foreign ships.
Routinely, Russian tactics are ramped up in three stages. First, non-Russian vessels have to wait for days to be permitted to pass through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov. Then, having at last been given the green light, they are stopped by the Russian coast guard in the Sea of Azov before being allowed to call at Mariupol or Berdyansk. Finally, as the ships head back to get through the Kerch Strait again, they have to wait again before being allowed into the Black Sea.
According to Ukrainian sources, between late April and mid-July this year, the Russian coast guard stopped and boarded 150 vessels heading to and from Mariupol and Berdyansk.
Between May and November, Kiev registered 727 cases of impediments to freedom of navigation in the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov. Specifically, the Russian side stopped ships in the open sea 110 times, and blocked them in the Strait before entering the Sea of Azov and in the Back Sea 316 times and 301 times respectively.
Even international dredging operators contracted by the Ukrainian government to deepen Mariupol and Berdyansk’s water approaches no longer risk entering the Sea of Azov.
Ukrainian cargo that would normally be shipped from Mariupol and Berdyansk is now being transported by rail to the country’s Black Sea ports.