Russia has strengthened its grip on the Black Sea since annexing Crimea. Turkey controls the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, curbing Moscow’s maritime expansion. Between them, they keep western forces in check.
Russia’s coastguard intercepted three Ukrainian warships attempting to pass through the Kerch Strait on 25 November last year. They had sailed from Odessa and were heading for the Sea of Azov, where Ukraine has a few hundred kilometres of coastline. Tensions in the area have increased since Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, and competition over access to the Azov Sea is yet another cause of friction.
The November incident was the latest, and most serious in a series of interceptions and unexpected checks on shipping by both sides in the Azov Sea since early 2018. Under a treaty signed in 2003, the sea is a Russo-Ukrainian condominium, and both countries’ merchant and naval vessels have total freedom of passage through the Kerch Strait. But by taking over Crimea, Russia gained de facto control of access to the Azov Sea, since it now controls both shores of the Kerch Strait (see map, Russia asserts itself in the Black Sea, in this issue). Its total military superiority over Ukraine effectively makes the Azov Sea a Russian lake.
Last May, Russia opened a bridge linking Crimea to mainland Russia, which cost almost $4bn to build and has strengthened Russian control of the Kerch Strait. Russia unilaterally imposed rules of passage to protect the bridge during its construction and has since tightened them, fearing that Ukraine will try to destroy the bridge, as some in Kiev, including MP Ihor Mosiychuk, have openly suggested.
The crisis last November happened because Ukraine sought to challenge Russia’s rules of passage. Ukraine could have moved these small ships overland if it had wanted to, as it had done with two patrol boats in September. The same month, two Ukrainian naval ships — a tug and a search-and-rescue vessel — had passed through the Kerch Strait without incident after signalling their intentions (though under close Russian surveillance). When Ukraine decided in November that its (...)