“Kerch precedent”: how both Russia and Ukraine benefited from seizure of ships in the strait near Crimea

The small strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov turned out to be strategically important for everybody a year ago, while politics aggravated the already unfavourable weather conditions and a dangerous seabed

The so-called Kerch incident took place between Ukraine and Russia, which arrested three military Ukrainian ships during an attempt to cross the strait from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov a year ago. The West condemned the actions of our country by imposing several other sanctions on Moscow. A year later it might seem that everything bounced back: the sailors were freed in the end, the ships were given to Kyiv back, but is everything over? Considering the recent scandal about the alleged lack of equipment and plumbing in the ships that were given back, the investigation into the Kerch Case is unlikely to be relaunched by FSB. Realnoe Vremya newspaper tried to study arguments of both the Russian and Ukrainian sides and learnt why ships must ask for permission to cross the strait, how Ukrainian Donbass ship could annoy Russian sailors and why both Russia and Ukraine benefited from the Kerch incident. However, Russia benefited more and, in fact, got the strategic key to the Sea of Azov.

“Seven vs three”: what happened in the Kerch Strait a year ago

The next conflict among endless others since 2014 between Russia and Ukraine took place in the Kerch Strait a year ago. But this time, however, it was almost bloodless. Three Ukrainian ships tried to pass from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov through a small strait (from 4,5 to 15 km wide) separating Crimea and the Taman Peninsula (Krasnodar Krai). According to the Ukrainian side, the ships — gunboat Berdyansk and Nikopol and tugboat Yany Kapu — were going from Odessa to Mariupol. It should be noted that all the three ships weren’t civil and were part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Russia arrested the Ukrainian ships with suppressing forces of the Border Service of FSB and the Russian Navy (at least seven patrol boats, a minesweeper, helicopters and attack aircraft, etc.). Moreover, it didn’t do it right away. Manoeuvring, pursuit, closure of the strait lasted for the whole day on 25 November 2018 from the moment when the Ukrainian ships crossed the Russian border (as FSB says) at 7.10 a.m. until 9 p.m. when Berdyansk finally asked for help after using fire shot to kill. During the day, Ukraine tried to send two ships from Berdyansk to help, but Russia blocked these attempts having scrambled attack helicopters Ka-52 with anti-ship missiles and Su-25 attack aircraft. Neyma tanker that sank was another ‘aggressive’ act of the Russian side because of which the Ukrainian ships couldn’t get to the Ukrainian port of Berdyansk — Moscow claimed that the tanker grounded itself in the Kerch Strait and nobody sank it deliberately.

Sailors are free, ships are back — is the incident over?

As a result of the superior enemy forces, Berdyansk, Nikopol and Yany Kapu were arrested, while its crews including injured people during the 12-hour conflict were arrested. The Russian side explained the abrupt actions saying that it seized the ships because the Ukrainian sailors refused to communicate, performed dangerous manoeuvres, ignored requirements of Russian border officers and entered the territorial waters of the Russian Federation. The Ukrainian side claimed that it had notified it would be passing through the strait to the port of Kerch as it should be but hadn’t received a response. After that, it made a turn, sent them back to the Black Sea where — in neutral waters, as Kyiv states — they were arrested. This is why Ukraine’s considered Moscow’s actions as non-motivated aggression.

Less than a year later, however, the Ukrainian sailors were sent back within mutual liberation and exchange of the arrested people, while the ships were returned to Kyiv last week, almost a few days to the commemorative date. The return of ships couldn’t help but include an international scandal because of the heads… While FSB renewed the investigation into the Kerch Incident Case just a couple of days ago. What happened a year ago in the end? Who needed it? Who benefited from it and who lost? What were the further consequences of the Kerch clash? And what’s the place of this quite a strange incident in the puzzle of the Russian-Ukrainian ‘hot and cold war’? Only historians will likely answer these questions accurately, and only in a half a century. But one can try to answer some of them even today.

Why do all the ships must ask Kerch captain for permission?

We will start with purely technical aspects. The Kerch Strait is very narrow for navigation. In addition, the weather conditions aren’t favourable (10 ships suffered in 2007 because of a storm, five of them sank). To avoid a clash of two ships in the narrow part where ships can navigate in this strait, it is required to have permission from the captain of the Kerch Port in every case of crossing, and in principle it is necessary to have a local pilot on board who knows the seabed of the strait like the back of his hand. However, the Crimean issue complicated the situation. As it is known, Crimea is de jure part of Ukraine according to international laws and Ukrainian legislation, while by Russian legislation (only few states agree with it in this issue) has been part of Russia de jure and de facto since the spring of 2014. So if before 2014, Russian and Ukrainian ships had been asking the Ukrainian port of Kerch for permission when crossing the strait, now they ask the captain of the Russian port of Kerch for permission.

Five years later, Moscow and Kyiv haven’t yet come to an agreement on borders in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait due to cooling in relations during the conflict in Donbass, while the Ukrainians continue considering Kerch theirs de jure but de facto seized by Russian armed forces. This is why Ukrainian militaries theoretically don’t think they are obliged to ask their opponent for permission. At the same time, due to the above-mentioned difficult seabed and weather conditions, they don’t have to do it. According to the International Rules of Preventing Collision at Sea, to avoid collisions of ships in the sea it is prohibited to cross a narrow channel, which thus can restrict the navigation of the other ship but have to. To basically not to go down. And Ukrainian trade ships as well as ships of other countries anyway had been turning to the port before November 2018 when crossing the strait, which, by the way, caused a negative reaction in the European Union that considered the stops and examination of ships in the strait “excessive”.

“Ukrainians’ double provocation”: how Donbass ship annoyed Russian militants

The November incident was complicated by another two things that have nothing directly to do with naval law, seabed, weather and even the legal status of Crimea. Firstly, pre-election scandals were breaking out in Kyiv on those days. Then-president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko didn’t have a high rating: many understood that he would lost the election in 2019. Only the imposition of martial law saved him, this is why the Russian side and the Ukrainian opposition of Poroshenko considered the attempt of Ukrainian ships to cross the strait a provocation. Poroshenko did impose martial law on 26 November already, but only in a number of regions adjacent to Crimea and Russia, which was lifted a month later. Secondly, the Russian militaries who were even far from politics, regardless of the Ukrainian pre-election rhetoric could also consider the Kerch incident a provocation. The case is that just a couple of months before this, in September 2018, two military ships of the Navy of Ukraine Donbass (which is characteristic) and Korets had already crossed the Kerch Strait both navigating along the shores of Crimea and entering the water area that Russia unilaterally declared an exceptional economic zone. After that, Ukrainian sailors published a statement (for some reason, on Facebook, that’s to say, unofficially) that they “didn’t ask the aggressor for permission, but used their right to freely cross the Kerch Strait”. It should be noted that due to the above-mentioned words about the weather, narrowness and seabed, this political campaign could have caused unpredictable and catastrophic consequences for the Ukrainian sailors themselves.

The Russian side had to assure then that the Ukrainian ships did ask for permission and were accompanied by ships of the Russian Navy and FSB’s boats through the strait. Obviously, the Russian militants weren’t going to permit the Ukrainian side’s second attempt in any circumstances. It is what caused their abrupt reaction in November: after the ships of the Russian Navy and FSB’s boats denied crossing the strait, they didn’t stop on 25 November 2019 but began to pursue the Ukrainian ships, including, as some international experts assure, in neutral waters (according to Moscow, the seizure took place in the Russian territorial waters) and arrested them. From a juridical perspective and by other international laws, their actions can be considered illegal and even aggressive. But from a psychological perspective, in this case, they are clear and explicable. The problem is that the Ukrainian sailors can also be understood psychologically in both the first and second cases: Russia for them is an aggressor, Crimea is under the jurisdiction of Crimea, while the Kerch Strait in its navigable part belongs to Ukraine.

West limited to condemnation, sanctions and deployment of hydrographic survey ship to Black Sea

Whether it is both sides’ provocation or “psychologically understandable actions”, they caused inevitable consequences. Considering the fact that the international community in its majority including influential countries that are members of NATO, the EU, UN and PACE doesn’t recognise Crimea Russian, it was no surprise that it condemned Russia’s actions having urged to free the Ukrainian sailors (who were considered in the West as ‘prisoners of war’), give the seized ships back, provide unimpeded access to marine ports in the Sea of Azov and free navigation in the Kerch Strait. The UN Assembly General was hostile to the “unjustified use of force of the Russian Federation against Ukraine” and urged not to impede Ukraine’s navigation in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait. In answer, the USA and Great Britain warned about the deployment of their military ships to the Black Sea “to provide freedom of navigation” and urged France and Germany to do the same. The latter refused (“unnecessary provocation”), in the end only hydrographic survey ship HMS Echo of British Navy was sent to the Black Sea.

The West, in general and particular, limited only to sanctions against Russian shipbuilding companies and some individuals who, in its opinion, had something to do with the conflict in the strait (for some reason Igor Sechin was on the blacklist among them). Only Ukraine itself demonstrated some actions. Poroshenko announced late last year that Ukrainian sailors would certainly cross the strait that way again meeting all international rules when “they were ready for the next crossing for rotation of our subdivisions”. And in July 2019, Russian tanker Neyma was arrested by Ukrainians in the port of Izmail (Odessa Oblast), its crew was freed after interrogation because the crew itself had nothing to do with the “block of Ukrainian military ships in the Kerch Strait”.

“Toilet incident”: sailors and ships are back home under Zelensky, but with a bad taste in the mouth

Interestingly, the tanker was seized already with a new team of Ukrainian authorities under Volodymyr Zelensky who, by the way, prefers to make official statements on Facebook where he claimed this May that if Russia liberated the Ukrainian military ships and 24 sailors, it could “make a step towards unblocking the talks” between the two countries. Demonstrating less aggressive rhetoric than his predecessor, he gave to understand that he was ready to resolve the conflict with Russia having started it with an exchange of captives. After long talks and postponements, the Ukrainian sailors were back home on 7 September 2019. Despite peaceful rhetoric, Zelensky anyway gave the sailors military awards. A couple of months later, on 18 November, Russia gave the Ukrainian ships back and claimed that “it intends to stop any provocations near its borders further on, including to provide security of navigation in accordance with Russian legislation, bilateral agreements and other applicable norms of international law”.

The return of ships, reviewers note, took place in compliance with a number of unofficial commitments of Russia during the preparation for the summit Normandy Format, which is due to be on 9 December. The return of the ships couldn’t help but include a conflict: Commander of Navy of Ukraine Ihor Voronchenko claimed that the ships had even “fittings, plugs and toilets” removed in Russia. In reply, Moscow accused the previous Kyiv authorities who allegedly drove the ships to such an awful state, while FSB noted that, indeed, many personal belongings of the sailors taken away after the arrest of the ships in the Kerch Strait weren’t given back, while investigators dismantled all equipment and weaponry, took documents, computers and phones away “to relaunch the investigation into the criminal case, which opened after the incident in the Kerch Strait with the ships of the Navy of Ukraine”.

Why both Russia and Ukraine benefited from the Kerch incident

Summing up this year-old naval conflict, we can try and give our answers to the questions, what this or the other side achieved with this incident and what they lost. It is clear, more or less, what both sides lost. Russia again got sanctions and next reputational losses as “aggressor”. Ukraine did national humiliation, a loss of three ships and 24 sailors of their crews and even a theoretical possibility of the next crossing through the strait.

However, there are advantages, too, though they are rather tactical. Firstly, accidentally or deliberately, Russia got certain leverage in the bargaining and conflict with Ukraine because of the seizure of ships and sailors. It is proved by August events: Kyiv then returned 24 peoples to Moscow as well, including Ukrainian citizens who were arrested, as Russian authorities think, for political motives. If not the Kerch conflict, Moscow wouldn’t have had sailors for an equal exchange of ‘prisoners of war’, a good chance to haggle. Ukraine, in turn, also benefited from the incident in the strait, as strange as it might sound: its new authorities got the chance to claim to their votes for the first time that they kept one of their promises — the sailors and ships were back (it is clear that the “return of Crimea and Donbass” was less likely).

Strategically, Russia anyway got more claiming the Kerch Strait and almost closing it for military ships of Ukraine and giving to understand that it was ready it close it to its other inimical countries as well. And thus make the Sea of Azov “closed” and its own sea (no country in this sea has an as powerful fleet as Russia does).

By Sergey Afanasyev