25 November 2018 — Moon of Alabama
The Ukrainian government under the oligarch Petro Poroshenko is in election campaign mode. That is one reason why it is launching new provocations against Russia. Yesterday Ukrainian forces reportedly occupied a town within the neutral zone between the government controlled part and the rebel held Donetsk area. Today the Ukrainian navy sent a tug and two small gun boats,
recently acquired from the U.S. Coast Guard, Ukrainian build Gurza-M class types, to pass through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov.
With Crimea back in Russian hands, the Kerch Strait is solely Russian territorial water. The Treaty on the Legal Status of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, signed in 2003 by Russia and the Ukraine, provides that military ship entry into the sea is only allowed with mutual consent. Ukraine disputes the status of the sea in an arbitration court. (For a legal discussion of the case see 1, 2, 3.)
The Ukrainian government, urged on by the U.S., wants to establish a new military harbor in the Sea of Azov. Two of its navy ships, a rescue vessel and a tug, passed through the street on September 23. In October the Russian government warned that it will not allow any further militarization of the sea. Some U.S. hawks even want NATO ships to enter the Sea of Azov. The Sea of Azov has a maximum depth of 7 meters. Typical U.S. frigates have a draft of 10+ meters. What NATO or U.S. ship could even go there? As Russia firmly controls the sole entry point into the sea and can easily attack any ship in the Sea of Azov from within its borders the idea is incredibly stupid.
The Kerch Strait is now blocked by a large cargo ship the Russians anchored under the new Kerch bridge.
The Ukrainian provocation may well be aimed to sour the meeting between President Trump and Putin that is planned for November 30 during the G20 summit in Argentina. It should be more careful. It is quite possible that Russia will block commercial traffic to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol over any further incident. The big loser of this useless provocation would then again be the Ukraine.
Update – Nov. 26, 6:00 utc
The Russian coast guard detained the three Ukrainian ships and their crews in Russian waters. They again illegally attempted to cross from the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian side says the two of its seaman were injured.
Since Crimea voted to again become a part of Russia the Kerch Strait is Russian territorial water. Ships can pass the strait but are required to take on a pilot and to undergo inspections if the Russian coast guard demand such. The Ukrainian side understands that these are legal measures. In a report by the U.S. government outlet RFL/RE published in August the Ukrainian side admitted as much:
[The Ukrainian Sea Guard and the squadron’s spokesman] Poliakov said that, while Russia’s actions are “provocative,” because of a controversial 2003 agreement on cooperation and shared use of the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait, ” everything Russia is doing here is technically legal.“
The three Ukrainian ships tried to pass Russian waters without informing Russian authorities and without taking on pilots. Since Russia build the $3.7 billion Kerch bridge which connects Crimea with Russia, U.S. commentators and Ukrainian politicians threatened to blow up the bridge. The Russian are understandably carefully about any traffic near to it.
Following yesterday’s incident the president of the Ukraine Pedro Poroshenko proposed to declare martial law. The parliament will have to decide on that. This is a very convenient move for Poroshenko as it will allow him to move the March 2019 general election date. Poroshenko trails in the polls with some 8% of the total vote.
Russia called for a UN Security Council emergency meeting which will be held at today at 11:00am EST. The passage through the Kerch Strait is again open for civil vessels.
The usual anti-Russian subject in “western” political circles use the incident to demand more measures against Russia. Fronting the effort is the weapon industry lobbying group Atlantic Council:
Anders Åslund, a resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said: “NATO and the United States should send in naval ships in the Sea of Azov to guarantee that it stays open to international shipping.”
Such action, Åslund said, “would be in full compliance with the UN Law of the Sea Convention of 1982 and the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits of 1936.”
Anders Aslund is listed as member of the “U.S. & Canadian Cluster” of the secret influence operation by the British Foreign Office describe here two days ago. He is obviously unable to read a map, sea chart, or UN convention. The Ukrainian attempt to pass through the Kerch Strait without Russian consent is a breach of Article 7, 19 and 21 of the UN Law of the Sea Convention (pdf):
Article 7: “Subject to this Convention, ships of all States, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea.”
Article 19-1: “Passage is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State. Such passage shall take place in conformity with this Convention and with other rules of international law.”
Article 21-4: “Foreign ships exercising the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea shall comply with all such [coastal state] laws and regulations and all generally accepted international regulations relating to the prevention of collisions at sea.”
There will now be again a lot of noise in the media about the ‘nefarious Russians’ and new demands for even more useless sanctions. But the legal case is clear. It was the Ukrainian navy that willfully attempted to pass from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov through Russian territorial waters without regard to the laws and regulations of the coastal state. Russia was within its full rights to prevent the passage and to seize the Ukrainian boats.