The Kerch Incident

Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels on 25th November 2018 Sunday and escalated the feud between two countries to the next level.

The Ukrainian trio – Gurza-M class gunboats P-175 Berdyansk, P-176 Nikopol and the tug A-947 Yana Kapu – set sail from Odessa and was destined to Berdyansk by the Azov Sea.

The Azov Sea is a large and shallow part of the Black Sea shared by Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Access from the Black Sea is through the Kerch Strait.

In 2003 the –then friendly – Russian Federation and Ukraine signed a treaty cooperation in the use of the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait. According to this treaty merchant ships and warships, as well as other state ships flying the flag of the Russian Federation or Ukraine, operated for non-commercial purposes, enjoy the freedom of navigation in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait.

Before the occupation of Crimea, the Kerch Strait was separating Ukraine from Russia. Now both side of the strait is controlled by the Russian Federation. And this control enables Russia to decide who can pass through the Strait and who cannot. In the last couple of months, the Russian Federation has started to delay merchant ships in the Azov Sea, by detaining and inspecting them if their destination is a Ukrainian port. These legal but abusive inspections delay the ships at least 2 or 3 days.  European Parliament stated that Russia detained at least 120 vessels that flown the EU flag since April and not allowed them to proceed to Ukrainian ports. These arbitrary and unnecessary long inspections hurt the Ukrainian economy very much.

In the recent months, Russia has moved naval units from its Caspian and the Black Sea Fleets to the Azov Sea. As a counter move, Ukraine decided to reinforce its naval assets in the region. In early September Ukraine deployed two Gurza-M class gunboats. But instead sailing through the Kerch Strait they were moved on a truck by road. Thus Russia was not in a position to prevent this movement. Furthermore, Ukraine sends on 24th September the Amur class warships, A-500 Donbas and the tug A-830 Korets again through the Kerch Strait. During that deployment, the tug was towing the other ship.

However this time Ukraine decided to send the gunboats by sea instead of by land. This was not a decision out of nautical necessities.

The Russians tried to stop the Ukrainian ships. A video made from the bridge of Russian Sorum class Coast Guard vessel Don shows how the ship shouldered the Ukrainian tug Yana Kapu. The video does not show however how Don collided with the other Russian Coast Guard vessel Izumrud and created a hole on her superstructure.

Izumrud later opened fire with her AK-630 multi-barreled 30mm gun to the gunboat Berdyansk. The photos circulation on social media clearly shows the bullet hole on this boat. Later Russian special forces boarded the vessels and seized them.

In the aftermath of the incident, Russians flew the Ukrainians to Moscow. But before that, some of the Ukrainian sailors had to appear in front of the TV cameras to be forced to read some kind of made up confessions.

Ukraine pleaded help from the West and asked NATO to send warships to the Sea of Azov. People with enough geographical knowledge quickly realized that Azov Sea was too shallow to accommodate any NATO warship big enough to make a statement and armed enough to protect herself properly. Such a warship would not be able to pass under the Kerch Bridge that has only 33 meters clearance.

Ukraine also demanded Turkey to close Turkish Straits to Russian warships. Ihor Voronchenko, Commander of the Naval Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, at the II International Conference on Maritime Security in Kiev, said that Ukraine intends to appeal to the international community to strengthen sanctions against Russia in connection with its aggressive actions in the Sea of Azov and to close the Bosporus Strait for vessels of the Russian Federation according to the 19th paragraph of the Convention of Montreux.

According to Article 19 of Montreux Convention, in time of war, Turkey not being belligerent, warships shall enjoy complete freedom of transit and navigation through the Straits under the same conditions as those laid down in Article 10 to 18. Vessels of war belonging to belligerent Powers shall not, however, pass through the Straits except in cases arising out of the application of Article 25 of the present Convention, and in cases of assistance rendered to a State victim of aggression in virtue of a treaty of mutual assistance binding-Turkey, concluded within the framework of the Covenant of the League of Nations, and registered and published in accordance with the provisions of Article 18 of the Covenant…

The obvious problem here is, that there is no openly declared war between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.  And neither of these two nations is going to change the status quo, by declaring one. Turkey will not close the Straits and will keep them open for any nation. Turkey also will try to lessen the tensions in the Black Sea through indirect mediation.

By sending the gunboats and the tug, Ukraine challenged the Russian position, that the Kerch Strait was a Russian inner waterway, and showed that it hasn’t recognized, the unilateral Russian change to the 2003 agreement. Ukraine has also managed to bring the problems it faces in the Azov Sea to the worldwide public attention. But has lost a third of her Gurza-M class gunboats which are much needed to strengthen the Ukrainian Navy

On the other hand, Russia revealed that it prefers to confront Ukrainian armed forces without proxies rather than putting its assumed ownership on the Kerch Strait and demonstrated that it was ready physically block the Strait at all costs.

2 Responses to The Kerch Incident

  1. Harry says:

    The Azov sea, and straits of Kerch are international waterways. Ukraine has every right to the use of its Azov ports. Nato ought to come up with shallow draft naval craft to patrol the Azov Sea to ensure that international rights of navigation are enforced.

  2. Kevin Brent says:

    I was wondering if the Montreux Convention would apply in any way. Thank you, for the explanation in this post.

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