Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 30.10.2018
The military situation in the Sea of Azov is tense. The commander of the Ukrainian Navy, Vice-Admiral Ihor Voronchenko, said that his country’s response to Russian aggression now would be different than it was in 2014 when the Russian Federation invaded Crimea. This time, Ukraine will fight back.
“I believe that further escalation can be carried out in the Black Sea,” predicted Admiral Voronchenko. The Sea of Azov is separated from the rest of the Black Sea by the Kerch Strait. Especially since the construction of the illegal Kerch bridge, the Russian aggressors have been militarizing the Sea of Azov on a massive scale. Ukrainian military intelligence estimates that the Russians now have 56 armed vessels in the Sea of Azov, from small gunboats to frigates. The Russian Navy has many more, and more powerful warships in the Black Sea proper.
The Ukrainian Navy was decimated at the start of the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine in 2014. The Russian invaders stole most of the vessels of the Ukrainian fleet, and only ended up giving back a few of them. Admiral Voronchenko gave the order of battle of the current Ukrainian Navy: all told the Armed Forces of Ukraine have 120 ships and boats, but only 36 are operable. Only 24 are operable and are sufficiently armed.
It may be too late, but Ukraine should annul the Ukraine-Russia agreement on co-operation in the use the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait, signed in 2003. Given that the Russian Federation abrogated certain provisions of the Russian-Ukrainian Friendship Treaty of 1997, followed by Ukraine suspending that treaty, the co-operation agreement on the Sea of Above is null and void in any case.
The Russians readily abrogated the Partition Treaty on the Status and Conditions of the Black Sea Fleet when it suited their interests, after the invasion and occupation of Ukraine in Crimea. Ukraine should annul the Azov Sea co-operation agreement because it is harming, not protecting Ukraine. The Russian invaders of Ukraine use the 2003 agreement as an excuse to prevent NATO ships from entering the Sea of Azov at Ukraine’s invitation. They also prevent Ukraine from defending its coastline at the normal 12-mile territorial limit, and force the Armed Forces of Ukraine to defend the homeland at the coastline only.
If Ukraine does not annul the Ukraine-Russia agreement on co-operation in the use the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait, then the enemy will turn the Sea of Azov into a Russian lake. The Russians could then make an amphibious assault at any point of their choosing, between where Muscovy has invaded Ukraine in Donbas and where Muscovy has invaded Ukraine in Crimea.
Removing the useless co-operation agreement would change the Sea of Azov from the status of inland waters to international waters, like the rest of the Black Sea. The Kerch Strait would be restored as an international strait, despite the illegally-constructed Kerch bridge. Ukraine – a sovereign state free to choose its own alliances – would be free to invite NATO partner navies to the Sea of Azov and to the Ukrainian ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol. Ukraine already invites friendly navies to the Black Sea and to the port of Odesa.
The European Union has threatened more sanctions to take effect after the Russian Federation expands its war against Ukraine to the Sea of Azov. Western friends of the Ukrainian people can do a lot better than that. NATO can prevent wider aggression by the Russians by sailing warships into the Sea of Azov and visiting Ukrainian ports there. NATO failed to enter the Black Sea in 2014, and that emboldened Putin to proceed with his invasion of Ukraine.
Don’t make the same mistake twice. Defending Ukraine in the Sea of Azov is the best way to stop Putin’s War from getting bigger than it already is.