The crisis in the Azov Sea

How did this happen and what can we expect further?

Tetiana Bezruk
29 November 2018

Kerch Strait. (c) Bai Xueqi/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved. On 25 November, two Ukrainian gunboats, the Berdyansk and Nikopol, accompanied by the raid tug Yany Kapu, were making a routine maneuver from Odesa, on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, to the city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. In accordance with a 2003 treaty between Ukraine and Russia, non-commercial and naval vessels of both countries have freedom of navigation in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait that cuts between Crimea and Russia. This same treaty also permits vessels belonging to third countries to enter the Azov Sea’s waters and use the Kerch Strait when entering and exiting Ukrainian and Russian ports.

As they approached the Azov Sea, the Ukrainian side reported their intentions to the Russian navy. But at the Kerch Strait, Russian naval vessels committed an act of military aggression on the Ukrainian ships. A Russian border guard cruiser, the Don, rammed the Yany Kapu, damaging the Ukrainian tugboat’s engine and piercing the ship’s plating. After the collision, the warships continued their voyage across the Azov Sea.

In footage released by Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, you can see how the Don’s Russian commanders drive their ship towards the Yany Kapu, hitting it on the starboard side. Russian naval vessels then began blocking the Berdyansk and Nikopol, hampering their attempts to help the Yany Kapu. According to the Ukrainian Navy, the Berdyansk attempted to contact a Russian FSB Border Service coastal station to report its intention to cross the Kerch Strait at about 4am, but received no response from Russian dispatchers. Later, negotiations with the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s anti-submarine ship Suzdalets took place in Kerch’s port, but the Ukrainian Navy’s message still went unanswered.

By early afternoon on 25 November, the Ukrainian warships had approached the Kerch Strait, where they were blocked by Russian vessels as they entered and left the strait. Meanwhile, at 1.50pm, the Russian warship Admiral Zakharin and two Raptor launches sailed through the strait, and Russian Ka-52 attack helicopters were observed in the sky in the vicinity of the Ukrainian vessels. By 7pm, the Ukrainian naval vessels began to move out of the strait, but found themselves followed by Russian naval launches, which ordered them to stop or be fired on. At the same time, reports of a Russian special forces unit boarding the Don began appearing in the media.

At 8pm, the Russian FSB Border Service opened fire on the Ukrainian naval vessels. The Berdyansk and part of its crew were fired on before Russian special forces seized the Ukrainian ships. In recordings of talks between Ukrainian and Russian forces on the Ukrainian LIGA.net website, the Ukrainian naval personnel can be heard telling their Russian counterparts that their intentions are peaceful, and informing them about their wounded. The attack and detention of the Ukrainian naval forces were also confirmed by the FSB, which also opened a criminal investigation into an illegal border crossing.

On the morning of 26 November, the Kerch.fm TV channel broadcast a video showing the Berdyansk, Nikopol and Yany Kapu tied up in Kerch harbour. Twenty three Ukrainian seamen were also detained in Crimea, and three out of the six wounded sailors — Andriy Artemenko, Vasyl Soroka and Andriy Eider‚ are now being treated at Kerch’s No.1 Pirogov Hospital. Ukraine’s Security Service has opened an investigation into this act of aggression by the Russian military under Article 437 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code: “On the Planning, Preparation, Initiation and Conduct of a War of Aggression”.

Immediately after the events in the Kerch Strait, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko announced that he was convening a war cabinet. This cabinet then decided to convene the National Security and Defence Council (SNBO), where the president, along with the military and security chiefs, proposed the imposition of martial law, and Poroshenko, at an extraordinary session of the Verkhovna Rada, called on MPs to consider introducing this measure for 60 days. The president stressed, however, that this measure was being taken purely for reasons of defence and did not imply any military action. And at the same time, NATO’s principal spokesperson Oana Lungescu called on the Russian government to allow free movement of Ukrainian warships in the Azov Sea.

During his speech to the National Security and Defence Council, Poroshenko remarked that the imposition of martial law would not restrict the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens. In a 26 November directive (“On extreme measures to ensure the national sovereignty and independence of Ukraine and the introduction of martial law in Ukraine”), the president stated that martial law would run from 26 November 2018 until 26 January 2019. He also listed a number of constitutional rights, including freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of thought and speech and freedom to elect governmental bodies, that would be restricted during this period.

The imposition of martial law, in a country that has already been at war for over four years, has not come to symbolise the official start of the conflict

Russian aggression in the Azov Sea has triggered a wave of street protests in Ukrainian towns and cities. A spontaneous rally developed outside the Russian Embassy in Kyiv, with people bringing tyres and paper boats to symbolise the seized ships and throwing smoke bombs into the Embassy grounds. A car with diplomatic number plates was also set on fire. Nor were the protests confined to the capital: they also took place in Lviv, Odesa and Kharkiv.   

Poroshenko’s directive is being implemented via a new draft bill, “On the introduction of Martial Law in Ukraine”. The National Security and Defence Council has supported it and recommended it be passed by parliament. After the president announced the directive, he made a speech announcing that in the interests of avoiding a setback to the presidential election due to take place on 31 March 2019, he would propose limiting martial law to 30 days. The previous proposal, for a 60 day period, would mean it coinciding with the start of the presidential campaign and possibly leading to the postponement of the election. Poroshenko’s announcement was also made after the People’s Front parliamentary fraction had announced its demands for the introduction of martial law: its MPs proposed a 30-day period, to be agreed in all the country’s regions, and the formalisation of 31 March 2019 as the date of the presidential election.


Oleh Lyashko, leader of Ukraine's Radical party, blocks the rostrum in the Ukrainian parliament, 26 November. (c) Serg Glovny/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.Before the parliament could begin voting on this issue, MPs from the Radical Party and Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc blocked the parliamentary speaker’s platform, and a recession was called. The martial law bill was put to the vote at 9.30pm and approved by 276 members (out of 423). The measure is now being introduced in 10 regions (out of 27): Kherson, Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Volyn, Odesa, Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporozhets, Vinnytsia and the Azov-Kerch water zone. After the law is passed, the Ukrainian Cabinet will need to develop a plan for its introduction and the measures required for its implementation. And the Ukrainian government will also need to plan how to release 23 Ukrainian seamen, six of them wounded, from Russian detention.

During the vote in the Verkhovna Rada, video footage, made by the FSB, of the Ukrainian seamen admitting to their crimes was released. Vice Admiral Ihor Voronchenko, who heads Ukraine’s navy, told TV viewers that these statements were given under physical pressure.

The imposition of martial law, in a country that has already been at war for over four years, has not come to symbolise the official start of the conflict. The focus of attention has shifted towards how the Ukrainian state observes citizens’ rights and freedoms, which could be reduced significantly.


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