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.
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
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