Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have erupted once again. This time their taking the fight to the sea. The latest flare-up began on 25 November, when a Ukrainian gunboat and tug sailing from Odessa to Mariupol were intercepted by Russian warships at the Strait of Kerch, the only access point into the Azov Sea by water. The Russian ships opened fire, and the tugboat was rammed. Afterword, special forces troops stormed the Ukrainian vessels. Between three and six Ukrainians were injured in the incident. Twenty-four Ukrainian sailors were detained.
Russia saw the attempted entry of the Ukrainian Navy into the Azov Sea as a violation of its territory. The reaction from Moscow wasn’t limited to the Navy. According to reports, Russia scrambled fighter jets and helicopters as the Ukrainian vessels approached. The passage through the Strait was blocked by a massive Russian tanker.
An Obvious Flash Point
Russia’s territorial claim on the Sea of Azov is one of the consequences of the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. The 2014 conflict was a modern throwback to the Cold War that many believed would trigger a full-fledged war between Russia and the West. Although talk of Ukraine in media discourse has largely taken a backseat over the past three years (other Russian aggressions from the Skripal poisoning to election meddling are more fresh in the memory), the most recent clash on the Azov is a clear reminder that the Russo-Ukrainian conflict is far from over. Tensions between the two countries remain high. There’s no shortage of issues that can trigger flare-ups.
And there is no more obvious place that such a flare-up would occur than the Sea of Azov.
Just from following recent news, a casual observer could have picked up that Azov was on a path to becoming a point of conflict. Recently, Moscow had decided to “temporarily close” an area of the Sea for shipping. Ukraine, however, had continued to conduct business as usual. At least two Ukrainian vessels have sailed through the Kerch Straits over the past several weeks.
But Russia’s zealotry over the Sea of Azov is by no means a recent phenomenon. Rather, it is deeply rooted in the region’s history over the past several centuries.
A Coveted Waterway
The Sea of Azov is a highly valued, strategically important body of water at the southern end of the Russian-Ukrainian border.
The Sea changed hands frequently between Russia and the major power in the region, Turkey, during a series of regional wars. It was also the scene of military conflicts between the two powers. This occurred first during the Russo-Turkish War (1686–1700). During that period, there were two back-to-back campaigns to capture the then Turkish fortress of Azov. While the first of those battles ended in a Russian retreat, the second was a success. In June of 1696, some 75,000 Russian troops, several Cossack regiments and two whole naval fleets, brought the Ottoman fortress to its knees through a combination of ground assaults and a maritime blockade. After the war, the Russian fleet maintained its main bases at Taganrog and Azov.
In the decade following the conquering of Azov, Russia’s naval power expanded dramatically with the building of 215 additional warships. Russia’s dominance of the Azov Sea, however, was not long lasting. In 1711, as a result of the Russo-Turkish War of 1710 and the Treaty of the Pruth that ended it the following year, Azov was returned to Turkey and the Russian fleet on the Azov was destroyed. The city was captured yet again by Russia in 1737, during the Russo-Austrian-Turkish War (1735–1739). But Russia never recovered the full military dominance of the Sea of Azov that it had forty years prior. Due to the eventual intervention of Central European powers in the War, Russia, while being allowed to keep territorial control of Azov, was not permitted to fortify its bases or maintain a fleet there. The last major conflict to be fought over the Azov was none other than the Crimean War of the 1850s. In 1855, the French and British-led coalition captured the Kerch Straits, gaining access to the Azov through the Black Sea. They then moved to attack the city of Taganrog, a Russian port at the northern tip of the Azov. Despite a relentless coalition onslaught, the Russians held out. The battle ended in October of 1855, with a French and British retreat.
So to sum it up, the Azov Sea has for centuries been a prime focus of Russian ambitions. Russian leaders have long seen it as key in Russia achieving naval superiority in the region and keeping its local and Western adversaries at bay. And they have fought many hard battles to keep a hold of it over the years. It is no surprise that in the modern era, the issue of Azov has become such a point of contention between Russia and Ukraine.
Just Another Day in Crimea
The seeds of strife between Kiev and Moscow over Azov were planted way before the 2014 annexation. In 2003, following a dispute over a small island in the center of the Kerch Straits, Russia succeeded in pressing Ukraine into signing a mutual agreement on the use of the Sea of Azov. The treaty categorized the Sea as the “inland sea” of the two countries, effectively declaring it free from international maritime law. Of course then, with Ukraine as the only other legitimate contender for Azov, Russia was in a position to assert its dominance unfettered.
Which it has.
In September 2018, Ukraine announced its intention to add navy ships and further ground forces along the coast of the Sea of Azov, with the ships based at the port of Berdyansk. The military expansion only exacerbated the effects of the Crimean Bridge construction, an edifice that hangs too low to allow passage of large ships into Ukraine’s ports. From Russia’s perspective it now has authority over use of the Azov Sea. That is why, according to the Kremlin, the seizure of Ukrainian navy ships was completely “lawful.”
The effects of Sunday’s clash have already begun to take shape. On 26 November, Ukrainian leaders declared martial law in the border areas with Russia, showing the government’s clear submission to far-right political factions who want a harder stance on Russia. There are strong indications the incident could trigger additional sanctions on Russia, not just from the United States but from a broader Western European coalition as well. The consequences of the recent clash on the Azov may be pivotal in the ongoing tensions between the two countries.