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Ukraine’s Black Sea coast: the next geopolitical flashpoint?

The Kerch Strait incident in November 2018 indicates that the geographic focal point of the Russian-Ukrainian military conflict may be currently shifting from the Donets Basin to the Black and Azov Seas. Four factors in particular make further tensions between Moscow and Kyiv, along the shores of the Crimean peninsula and Ukraine’s southeastern mainland coastline probable.

February 15, 2019 - Andreas Umland - Articles and Commentary

Waves in the Azov sea near Strelka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine Photo: Anton Vakulenko (cc) flickr.com

On November 25th 2018 Russia attacked Ukrainian naval vessels at the Kerch Strait, captured three ships and arrested the 24 sailors on board. The maritime clash indicates that the focal point of the Russian-Ukrainian military conflict may gradually shift from the Donets Basin to the Azov Sea in 2019. According to Vitaliy Kravchuk, senior researcher at the Institute of Economic Research and Policy Consulting in Kyiv, “if there are further marine incidents, it could mean the closure of the Azov ports for shipping.”

Such a development would have grave economic repercussions not only for the large cities of Mariupol (approximately 455,000 inhabitants) and Berdyansk (approximately 115,000 inhabitants). These two ports have hitherto been handling about five per cent of Ukraine’s foreign trade, mostly in steel, chemicals and agricultural products. Ukraine has only limited or/and decrepit alternative transport infrastructure to redirect trade flows that have until now gone through the Mariupol and Berdyansk seaports. Continuing tensions or, worse, further escalation at the Azov Sea will above all threaten social stability in south-eastern mainland Ukraine. It can also lead to a significant reduction or even curtailment of Ukrainian economic growth in 2019 and beyond.

Absent Western material reactions and international organizations

In spite of these potentially grave consequences, such a scenario is not unlikely. There are several simultaneous and mutually aggravating catalysts for rising tensions along the Azov and Black Sea coastlines. They include: the reaction of the West vis-à-vis different Russian escalation schemes; the degree of involvement of international organizations in the Azov Sea; the stability and functionality of the Kerch Strait Bridge; and the unresolved issue of ensuring a sustainable fresh water supply to occupied Crimea.

A major factor currently enabling escalation in the Azov region is the West’s reaction (or lack thereof) to the recent naval confrontation near the Kerch Strait Bridge. The West, so far, follows what one could call the Crimea Modus (and not the Donbas Modus) of response to rising tension between Moscow and Kyiv. The EU has not reacted materially to the capture of Ukrainian sailors, as it did after the shooting down of MH17 in July 2014.

Reminiscent of its behavior in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the EU has instead responded by sending verbal and symbolic signals to Moscow, and may, if at all, impose some individual sanctions. The West’s largely non-material signaling may encourage the Kremlin to switch Russian military and other anti-Ukrainian activities from the Donbas to the Azov Sea and Ukraine’s south-eastern drylands. To Moscow, the latter may appear as a less risky hybrid war theatre than the Donbas, particularly in an economic sense. While continuing blockade of Ukrainian trade or further military escalation may further raise Western “concern,” apparently, the overall costs of such behavior will remain low, for the Kremlin.

A second determinant of continuing or rising tensions around Crimea rather than in the Donets Basin is the involvement of international organizations (or lack thereof) in the two different regions. It is worth remembering that in 2017 Putin suggested an increase of such organizations’ presence in the Donbas. He proposed to add a small, armed UN protection contingent to the relatively large, unarmed OSCE observation mission. To be sure, this proposal did not satisfy Ukraine and the West back then and was thus not implemented. Still, Putin has been far more lenient regarding the presence of international organizations in the Donbas than with regard to the Azov Sea and Crimea. Here, the Kremlin is demonstratively blocking even a minor presence of unarmed OSCE observers, not to mention an armed UN mission. The absence of significant international organizations in the Azov Sea and on the Crimean peninsula makes Russian actions against Ukraine in that region less risky and more likely.

Unclear future of the Kerch Strait Bridge and Crimean water supply

A third factor potentially motivating the Kremlin to behave more adventurously between the Azov and Black Seas would be technical malfunctioning or economic ineffectiveness of the new Kerch Strait Bridge connecting Russia and Crimea. This prestigious object holds a high symbolic political meaning for the legitimization of the Putin regime vis-à-vis the Russian population. If the bridge fails to achieve its supposed aim to provide a push to Crimea’s social development and integration into the Russian economy, then the Kremlin may start to search for apologies for such a failure and try to stage an escalation that can be spun to explain a partial or full dysfunctionality of the bridge.

This would particularly be the case if the bridge starts crumbling. Since the opening of the so-called “Crimean Bridge” in May 2018, Ukrainian media has repeatedly reported about engineering and geological issues with the long conduit. A possible closure or even collapse of the bridge would be a catastrophic blow to the Putin regime’s post-annexation public self-image and make deceptive maneuvers – including military ones – by the Kremlin more probable. Even if the controversial construction holds, the question remains how far the bridge will go to fulfil its purpose of pushing Crimea’s economy and assimilating it into Russia’s. Should the expensive connection not meet these geoeconomic tasks, this too will increase the likelihood of a distracting anti-Ukrainian escalation designed to obscure a strategic blunder by the Kremlin.

A final urgent problem for the Kremlin is the precarious situation with fresh water supply on Crimea. In 2014, Kyiv stopped delivery of water from the Dnipro river through the North Crimean Canal, via the Isthmus of Perekop, to the peninsula. Constantly declining aquatic reserves, in combination with the continuing dearth of energy supplies, are a virtual time bomb with potentially far-reaching economic and social consequences for Crimea’s inhabitants. In a surprising geoeconomic gaffe, Moscow has done little to resolve this issue since 2014. Russia has not built, for instance, a noteworthy desalination facility and respective energy infrastructure that could ease Crimea’s growing fresh water issue.

Should there be no principal solution to this problem soon via, for example, the erection of a large desalination plant, Crimeans will experience ever more sharply repercussions of the insufficient water supply. Such consequences will affect their economy and daily lives, eventually. A rise of social tensions on the peninsula may provide yet another potential trigger for escalation between Russia and Ukraine. Moscow may try to capture the closed canal between Crimea and the Dnipro river. This would lead Russian regular troops deep into Ukraine’s southern mainland and launch a second frontline of a – then officially – inter-state war between the two countries.

The above scenarios and factors constitute only some of the possible determinants for escalation between Russia and Ukraine. Given that these four conditions combine around Crimea, the Kerch Strait and the Azov Sea, they make continuing or even rising tensions in this area likely. The Azov Sea ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk will be operating, if at all, under various limitations and risks. Will Ukraine and its western partners be able and willing to provide some plausible stability guarantees and security mechanisms to the region? If not, the Ukrainian state as well as various national and foreign actors should start preparing themselves for a gradual decline of Mariupol and Berdyansk as well as the grave social and political consequences this will have.

Andreas Umland is a senior non-resident fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, principal researcher with the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and general editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” distributed by Columbia University Press.

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