By Scott Taylor
Last Thursday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called upon NATO to dispatch warships to the Sea of Azov in order to ‘provide security’ in the wake of an incident involving Russian security forces.
On Sunday, November 24, three Ukrainian naval vessels – two small patrol craft and a tugboat – transited the Kerch Strait enroute to the Ukrainian port city Mariupol. Russian naval vessels ordered them to halt, then opened fire and eventually boarded the Ukrainian ships.
All three Ukrainian ships were captured along with their 24 crewmembers. Six of the Ukrainian sailors were reported wounded during this seizure by force in the Sea of Azov.
Russia has claimed that the incident was a deliberate provocation on the part of Ukraine in general, and President Poroshenko in particular. Poroshenko describes the capture of the three ships as an act of Russian aggression and he immediately declared a 30-day period of martial law in the 10 Ukrainian districts which border Russia.
Following the incident, Russia has allegedly barred all Ukrainian shipping from entering or exiting the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Straits. Hence the frantic call from Poroshenko to bring in the NATO armada to settle the issue by igniting World War Three.
This call to arms led to the usual chorus from the Colonel Blimp Brigade, thumping their tubs and urging NATO leaders to heed the call and have our ships blast open a corridor into the Sea of Azov. To heighten the tension, one war mongering pundit described the now temporarily closed Kerch Straits as a ‘strategic waterway’.
For those not exactly familiar with the Sea of Azov here are a few basic facts: It is essentially a small extension of the eastern most end of the Black Sea. The only access point is via the Kerch Straits, which sit between Russia’s Taman peninsula and the Russian annexed, autonomous region of the Crimea.
The only two countries that border this body of water are Ukraine and Russia. In addition to some fishing villages, Ukraine has the two small port cities of Mariupol and Berdyansk, through which passes approximately 20% of Ukraine’s steel exports and 5% of their grain and wheat exports.
The scale of shipping is extremely limited – not by the height of the bridge, which Russia recently constructed across the 15-kilometer span of the Kerch Straits, but by the fact that the Sea of Azov is the world’s shallowest sea.
The average depth is only 9 meters, with much of this tiny sea being barely a metre deep. In other words, this is not a major international trade conduit and it is certainly not a strategic waterway in league with the Suez and Panama canals or the Bosporus Strait.
For NATO to heed Poroshenko’s request and to escalate the tension by deploying warships to the region would be foolhardy.
That does not mean that Russia’s actions in this incident should be condoned or ignored. If, as the Russian’s claim, Poroshenko and his regime in Kiev sent the three small warships as a deliberate provocation, why were the Russians dumb enough to take the bait?
The two gunboats and a single tugboat, even if they were able to transit to Mariupol, would hardly tip the strategic scales in the Sea of Azov. By sitting astride the Kerch Straits, Russia controls all access, as they have now clearly demonstrated.
By opening fire and capturing the three Ukrainian vessels, Russia committed an act of war against the navy of a sovereign state, operating on a shared body of water.
The Russian state media are broadcasting apparent confessions from the captured Ukrainian sailors wherein they claim they had direct orders to provoke a Russian response.
The problem with this scenario is that the Russians did allow themselves to be provoked into escalating the hostilities – and in doing so, would have therefore played right into Poroshenko’s hand.
Following the Sea of Azov incident and Poroshenko’s subsequent call for NATO action, German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered a reassuring voice of reason: “There is no military solution to the problem … we must emphasize that.”, she told a Berlin forum.
As a first step in de-escalating the crisis, Russia needs to return the warships and the sailors and reopen the Kerch Straits to Ukrainian shipping.