CAVAN HOGUE. Storms in the Sea of Azov.

The recent clash between Russia and Ukraine is about access to the Sea of Azov especially arising from the Russian bridge connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland.  Russian and Ukrainian claims and explanations are entirely predictable as is NATO’s condemnation of Russia. The Russians claim that it is all the fault of Ukraine for illegally entering Russian territorial waters while Ukraine says Russia is to blame and that it is yet another example of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The legal position is disputed and somewhat murky but Russia is clearly in breach of a 2003 agreement on the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. There have been tensions and minor incidents for some years but. tension has escalated with threats from both sides and even an offer from Turkey to mediate.

So what is the legal position? In 2003 Moscow and Kiev signed an agreement under which the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov are jointly the territorial waters of both Russia and Ukraine. The body of water is an inland, semi-enclosed sea and governed by Article 123 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which means  Russia and Ukraine are required to cooperate on all maritime matters, including access to the strait. According to Mikhail Barabanov, a Russian naval analyst at the Moscow-based Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies:“The status of the Kerch Strait is very much a matter of interpretation. After the annexation of Crimea, the interpretation of the 2003 treaty regarding passage through the strait has inevitably changed since Moscow now views the Kerch Strait as purely Russian territorial waters.” However, according to an American international law professor, Günther Handl:  “At a minimum there is a non-suspendable right of innocent passage through the Kerch Strait given that Ukraine has an irrevocable right to access its ports on the Sea of Azov.” Much would seem to depend on whether you accept that Russian incorporation of Crimea gives Russia the Kerch Straits as territorial waters whereas if you do not it remains Ukrainian littoral. Most countries do not recognise Russian incorporation of Crimea but that doesn’t worry Russia. This of course is relevant to how you see the public claim by President Putin that Ukrainian ships breached Russian territorial waters and the Ukrainian claim that they were exercising legal rights. It does seem clear nevertheless that Russia has unilaterally changed the situation and laid claim to territorial waters not envisaged in the 2003 agreement. No attempt has been made to renegotiate the 2003 agreement.

We can only speculate on why Russia chose to up the ante at this time. President Putin is always happy to create an incident which will enable him to beat his hairy nationalist chest for domestic purposes but why now? It is probably related to maritime claims around Crimean waters and close to the bridge which may be an impressive engineering achievement but is also a nationalist symbol and a way of consolidating the integration of Crimea into the Motherland. It is almost certainly only about this region and not the preliminary to an invasion of Ukraine as the Ukrainians say. Many Russians have never really accepted that “Little Russia” is a separate entity and certainly the annexation of Crimea was popular domestically. Russia also would prefer Ukraine to be a pro-Russian buffer and not a NATO client. The building of the bridge and the subsequent claim to territorial waters in the Sea of Azov, which is also historical Russian territory, can be seen as an extension of the annexation. So the most likely Russian motive is to shore up Putin’s domestic image and to consolidate Russian control over and claims to Crimea.

Ukrainian President Poroshenko faces an election next year which he will be very lucky to win. He is therefore stepping up the nationalist rhetoric too and relating it to what he claims is Russia’s plan to invade and take over Ukraine.  Since Ukraine doesn’t recognise Russian occupation of Crimea he can legitimately deny that Ukrainian vessels entered Russian territorial waters and that the 2003 agreement still holds.  He has declared martial law in some regions which makes him look good by standing up to Russia. Some fear that he may use this to help his campaign for re-election or even put off the election but this remains to be seen. The fact that it is restricted to what may be seen as relevant areas and not the whole country argues against this. Europe makes appropriate noises but European countries have their own troubles and are unlikely to do more than fulminate. In response to Petroshenko’s unrealistic demand that NATO send warships to the Sea of Azov German chancellor Merkel said that there is no military solution to the problem.

NATO’s response is also predictable. It is all Russia’s fault and  US Ambassador Nicky Haley has thundered forth at the UN in entirely predictable terms. There is talk of more sanctions against Russia but there is nothing much NATO can do without going to war against Russia which is not going to happen. President Trump remains better disposed to Putin than most other Americans so he is unlikely to be pushing for action. Putin knows that Ukraine cannot stand up to Russia militarily and that NATO is a paper tiger. Sanctions and condemnation of Russia by foreigners will only give him yet another tub to thump about foreign interference in Mother Russia etc etc. The most likely outcome is that Russia will exercise de facto control over the area but tension will remain and further incidents cannot be ruled out. Both Russia and Ukraine are threatening violence but  are unlikely to carry out their threats. Ukraine knows it would lose any war with Russia and so will confine its reaction to warlike words and calls for other countries to do something about Russia. Ideally, Russia and Ukraine will reach agreement on a modus vivendi but we do not live in an ideal world. NATO and the USA will huff and puff but will not blow the Russian house down.

Australia is not a player in this game and nobody is interested in our views. We will follow the US and NATO as we always do but perhaps even more be guided by domestic politics as we increasingly do. Ukrainians in Australia have demanded that Australia take action so this may encourage the Government to appear to be doing something to get the Ukrainian vote.

Cavan Hogue is a former Australian Ambassador to Russia dually accredited to Ukraine.


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4 Responses to CAVAN HOGUE. Storms in the Sea of Azov.

  1. Fred Summers says:

    Copied: Dec 01 18 – Leak from a Pro-Rus Ukrainian Blogger in Odessa states that a little known NATO plan from 2015 coded ‘Odessa Viking’ is now being prepared.

    This an audacious plan to outflank Russia and gain entry into the Sea of Azov through the back door.

    A clue to the nature of the operation is in the name. Vikings sometimes
    carried their light warships overland to surprise and outflank an enemy,
    or to avoid fighting a more powerful and hostile group.

    Low displacement shallow draft assets, including hovercraft, would be
    delivered to the Ukrainian Naval facility in Odessa, and then transferred to the Sea of Azov via a protected route inside Ukrainian territory. The route will be over water AND LAND.

    This will bypass or outflank Russian blockades and primary defences.
    This is a major chess move provocation by NATO aimed at putting
    Russia into a lose-lose situation.

    If the Russians DO NOT respond they risk becoming further outflanked and vulnerable to attack, or at least exposed to continuous harassment,
    pressure, and even humiliation.

    But if the Russians DO respond, any Russian action will be spun and propagandised as far as possible as proof of Russian Aggression.

    This is part of a much broader plan intended to force Russia into taking overt military action against Ukraine.


  2. David Macilwain says:

    “We can only speculate on why Russia chose to up the ante this time”. This might be the case were we deprived or ignorant of the reality of the situation between the US-backed coup government of Petro Poroshenko in Kiev and the ethnic Russian and pro-Russian populations of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
    This particular “ante” was upped a couple of months ago with the assassination of the leader of the Donetsk people’s republic Alexander Zakharshenko, in what appeared to be a collaborative effort by Ukrainian and UK/US agencies to destroy what remained of the Minsk agreement that Ukraine had completely failed to honour.
    The legal arrangements over access to the Sea of Azov are still valid and respected, but only apply to commercial and civilian shipping; no-one could doubt that the sending of two naval frigates by Kiev with the express intention to exercise “freedom of navigation” was a “Provocation” as Russia immediately identified it. The discovery of documents on board the ship and information from the Ukrainian sailors confirmed this dirty scheme by a desperate Poroshenko. However, the response of EU countries in particular, in support of this bankrupt state, is virtually incomprehensible; Putin may well look worried to contemplate just what lies ahead.
    Lastly I find the pretence that “this is not Australia’s business” quite disingenuous. Following the downing of MH17, Australia’s involvement with the Kiev “government” has been multiple, and including military cooperation against Russia. If the conflict worsens and Russia is forced to get involved then we will be on the other side of the trenches.

  3. Tony Kevin says:

    I support the views of correspondent Kerry Faithfull and add the following.

    Here is a sixmonths old map in the Guardian showing the exact location and dimensions of the new bridge and navigation channel . If this map is correct – one has to enter that proviso with The Guardian these days, but I have not yet been able to find a Russian map confirming where the bridge and navigation channel are – it is evident that the channel is closer to the Crimean coast. However since 2014 Russia claims sovereignty over Crimea , the Kerch Strait is less than 24 NM wide at this point which makes it all Russian territorial waters, and the bridge was completed in early 2018. Facts are facts.

    This constricted navigation waterway is kept dredged – there are many shallow shoals all around – and thus requires Russian tugboat and piloting assistance to pass through safely . That is why for innocent naval passage, notice needs to be given to the Russian authorities. Notice was not given. The Ukrainian Navy mini-convoy turned up unexpectedly and with its own tugboat and tried to force the strait under the new bridge.

    The Russians were not to know what the Ukrainian ships were doing . They could have been seeking to mine the passage or blow up the bridge pylons . Ukraine claims to be at war with Russia – they cannot expect to have it both ways, to be both at war with and sharing a narrow passage under a bridge with the enemy!

    For more detailed background, see this excellent analysis by The Saker in Off Guardian:

    which merits full reading as a primer on what is happening in and around Ukraine today, including on the naval incident.

    I am puzzled by Cavan Hogue’s apparent belief that Russia created this naval incident. All the evidence is that it was an Ukrainian Govt ordered provocation which recklessly put the lives of Ukrainian sailors at risk in a suicidal mission . The Russian Coastguard behaved with impeccable restraint for hours, clearly trying to save Ukrainian lives. When they finally acted to impound the Ukrainian vessels, it was with minimum force and lethality. All this will emerge in coming days of testimony by captured sailors and presentation of ships’ logs. Russia is already claiming that the logs show the Ukrainian captains were specifically instructed not to seek permission for innocent passage. This was intended by Ukraine to be a confrontation at sea. The timing – just before G20 – is highly suspicious.

    There is no need to accept the Western propaganda lineup behind Ukraine. The facts are clear.

  4. Kerry Faithfull says:

    I don’t think Russi was an agressor at all in this situation. Apparently they have a working agreement that permission is required and routinely given for Ukrainian vessels to pass through. Permission was not sought in this case therefore Russia impounded the vessels without violence or any loss of life.
    In my opinion Russia showed great restraint. (our Australian Police kill people more readily on our own streets for waving a knife around)

    If people would pay attention to what Putin actually says in International Relations, he never threatens violence and he consistently calls for dialogue and co-operation between Nations. This is the role that is supposed to belong to the UN but at which it fails miserably.

    As far as beating his hairy chest, if you took the time to watch his speeches you would know that this is just a fantasy wet dream of western media. He is always meticulous in his language and emotionally composed. The man is intelligent, knowledgable and eloquent, I’m not Russian or Ukrainian but I take the time to find out for myself about leaders whom the West loves to demonize.

    Given that Russia is actually not a threat to world peace and there is no evidence (actual evidence not opinion) supporting such an assertion, why is Nato even involved?

    Imagine the result if Russia has strayed under the Brooklyn Bridge in the US? Dead Russians no doubt and knowing the Americans they wold blow up the bridge into the bargain so they could claim a terrorist attack.

    Poroshenko clearly played this drama so that he could impose martial law over the whole of Ukraine and thus delay the election. How much more transparent does a motive have to be to political commentators such as your self? Martial Law? seriously? and not a critical comment from the author about the utter lunacy and irrelevance of imposing Martial law over a non violent border dispute?

    He failed, because Ukrainians who actually live in the Ukraine are not that stupid. Now they have Martial Law in some states and only for three months. Not what the Nazi doctor ordered.

    Damn that Putin! He foiled the plot by choosing a peaceful solution!

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