Black Sea blockade: Ukraine accuses Russia of major maritime escalation

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has issued a formal protest over Russian plans to partially block the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov in the coming days under the guise of naval military exercises. According to the Ukrainian protest, the unprecedented scale of the planned February 13-19 maneuvers “makes navigation in both seas virtually impossible.”

Ukrainian officials claim the move is part of Moscow’s ongoing “hybrid war” against the country and have accused Russia of “open disregard for international law including the UN Charter, UN General Assembly resolutions, and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

Russia’s apparent attempts to deny Ukraine access to international waterways have sparked considerable alarm in Kyiv at a time when the country is already on high alert over a mounting Russian military build-up to the north, east and south of Ukraine.

The Kremlin first began concentrating troops in Russian-occupied Crimea and in a number of Russian regions close to Ukraine in the final months of 2021. Beginning in late January 2022, Moscow has also sent tens of thousands of soldiers into neighboring Belarus, where they have been deployed to the south of the country along the 1000km Belarusian border with Ukraine.

Russia’s saber-rattling has been accompanied by a series of ultimatums calling on the international community to officially rule out future Ukrainian NATO membership and effectively abandon the country to the geopolitical wilderness. The West has so far rejected these demands while calling on Vladimir Putin to deescalate.

A series of high-level diplomatic initiatives in recent weeks have failed to produce any breakthroughs. Instead, fears are growing that Putin may be about to order a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and spark the biggest European conflict since World War II. As the world watches Ukraine’s land borders with Russia and Belarus for indications of Putin’s threatened offensive, there are now fears that a new maritime front may be emerging in the Black Sea.

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Responding to news of Russia’s planned naval exercises, Andrii Klymenko of Ukraine’s Institute of Black Sea Strategic Studies warned that the restrictions represented a significant escalation in the ongoing Kremlin encirclement of Ukraine. “I don’t want to spread any panic, but this looks very similar to preparations for a naval blockade of Ukrainian ports,” he posted on social media.

As Putin weighs up how best to proceed against Ukraine, a naval blockade is a potentially attractive option. While a major land offensive would be likely to result in high numbers of Russian casualties, a blockade of Ukrainian ports could be undertaken without the risk of military losses.

Losing access to the Black Sea would have devastating consequences for the Ukrainian economy, which relies heavily on agricultural and industrial exports flowing to international markets through the country’s Black Sea ports such as Odesa, Kherson and Mykolaiv. Local economies in coastal regions would also be badly hit by any slowdown in trade.

Moscow’s latest Black Sea gambit comes following years of escalating Russian interference targeting Ukrainian merchant shipping in the nearby Sea of Azov. Ever since the completion of the Crimean Bridge connecting the Russian-occupied Ukrainian peninsula with the Russian mainland, the Kremlin has introduced an expanding range of restrictions on Ukrainian and international vessels using ports along southeastern Ukraine’s Azov Sea coastline.

Ukraine has long condemned Russian efforts to disrupt shipping in the Sea of Azov and has repeatedly called for an international response. However, the international community has failed to impose additional costs on the Kremlin. Many in Kyiv now fear that this inaction may have encouraged Putin to attempt a far more ambitious maritime blockade.

Ukraine itself is currently in no shape to resist Russia at sea. While the Ukrainian military has undergone a dramatic transformation since 2014, Ukraine lost most of its already modest naval assets during the seizure of Crimea. As a result, the Ukrainian Navy is hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered by Russia’s maritime forces. Work is underway to create what will, in effect, be a new Ukrainian Navy, but progress is proving slow despite assistance from the US and UK.

In a February 10 social media post, the US Embassy in Kyiv called Moscow’s unilaterally imposed maritime restrictions a continuation of Russia’s “economic warfare” against Ukraine. “Under the pretext of military exercises, Russia restricts Ukraine’s maritime sovereignty, limits freedom of navigation in the Black Sea/Sea of Azov, and impedes maritime traffic essential to Ukraine’s economy,” embassy officials tweeted.

Ukraine will be hoping these words of condemnation are soon followed by suitable countermeasures, with Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov leading calls for an emphatic response to Putin’s latest escalation. “International waters are blocked by Russia,” he stated in a February 10 social media post. “Our partners showed a strong response to Russia by supplying arms to Ukraine. Now we also expect a unified reaction. When Russian ships can’t enter the world’s ports, they’ll understand the price of their impudence.”

Peter Dickinson is Editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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Image: The Admiral Essen frigate leaves Russian-occupied Crimea to join a naval exercise of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. January 2022. (Russian Defense Ministry/TASS via REUTERS)