By Paul Goble
Moscow’s harassment of Ukrainian shipping in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Straits may have a more ominous side than just limiting the transit of civilian and military vessels between Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea and the world ocean beyond.
Vasilii Bohdan, a retired Ukrainian lieutenant general, says the placement of the Russian navy on the Sea of Azov gives Moscow the capability to attack Ukraine from the sea and potentially open a land bridge between Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea (apostrophe.ua/article/society/accidents/2018-05-24/hotyat-zadavit-rossiya-gotovit-esche-odin-platsdarm-dlya-napadeniya-na-ukrainu/18557).
Obviously, the existence of a capacity does not necessarily point to an actual intention; but it does have a profound consequence in any case: It forces Kyiv to take this possibility even more seriously that it has up to now and prepare to counter or defend against it, something that will put further strain on Ukraine’s military budget and preparedness.
Bohdan says that he is “convinced that the situation in the Sea of Azov … is a logical step directed at putting further pressure on Ukraine” involving a serious reduction in the tonnage of shipping to the Azov ports and in the catch Ukrainian fisherman bring in. But no one should forget that there is a military dimension to this.
“Russia has never recognized the conditional border in the sea of Azov, and now it is understandable why,” the general says. It will use this lack of definiteness to use its naval power against Ukraine on the sea and possibly in support of landings on the Ukrainian littoral.
According to Bohdan, “the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine long ago made an assessment of this situation; therefore, the shores of the Sea of Azov are defended by Ukrainian forces as necessary. There are established corresponding defensive military infrastructure” to signal to Moscow that any Russian aggression in this sector would fail.
“Of course,” the general continues, “one must not in any case cease to be vigilant; and considering the crude policy of Russia on the sea, one must more actively apply the factor of international legal institutions. The Ukrainian authorities are already do this; but considering the bureaucracy in international courts, this process is moving slowly.”
Ukraine must use these international institutions to make it clear to Russia that Kyiv will have even more support from other countries if it engages in aggression from the sea. Of course, Moscow may seek to ignore any new sanctions because, as the general says, “the Kremlin has in fact left the international legal field” altogether.