A «Russian Lake»: the Nine Aspects of the Current Situation in the Black Sea

by Andrii KLYMENKO,

associate fellow, Crimea Department, Maidan of Foreign Affairs,
Editor-in-Chief of the BSNews.

The situation in the Black Sea is changing literally before our eyes. Its ongoing transformation into a de facto Russian lake is a direct consequence of the occupation and subsequent militarization of Crimea. The current Russian agenda among other, includes further occupation of the Ukrainian offshore shelf and its entire exclusive maritime economic zone, squeezing NATO out of the Black Sea and getting Turkey and Bulgaria hooked on the Russian gas needle.

Events are unfolding at such a speed that traditional foreign policy — both Ukraine’s and its Black Sea neighbors’, as well as NATO’s and the EU’s, not to mention that of the the UN — simply cannot keep up and requires an urgent careful and creative re-thinking.

The analysis below is aimed at anyone who cares about the region. It is important to understand that the fact that the summary of the NATO states borders accounts for the largest maritime border in the Black Sea is not reassuring by itself, and in fact, has every chance now of turning from a policy factor into merely an arithmetic one.

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In early May 2016, at a conference of Balkan Сhiefs of Defense in Istanbul, the Turkish president said:

«We will continue our contributions to your efforts of capacity building under the NATO, as well as hope for concrete outcomes of the July 8-9 Warsaw summit. We should transform the Black Sea into a basin of stability again on the basis of cooperation among riparian countries around the Black Sea. A short while ago Stoltenberg was in Turkey. During his visit I told him: «You are not visible in the Black Sea. And your invisibility in the Black Sea turns it into a Russian lake, so to speak.» As riparian countries we should live up to our responsibilities. As NATO members, we should take all required steps in all spheres, including the sea, air and ground. Otherwise, the history shall not forgive us.»

That is, already three years ago, when Turkey had a falling out with Russia, President Erdogan was the first to publicly sum up the situation in the Black Sea that resulted from the Crimea occupation.

Since then, however, over the last three years, the Black Sea has not just remained an "almost Russian lake" — that lake has been getting bigger.

1. Failure of the NATO Black Sea Fleet Idea

On July 8-9, 2016, the NATO summit in Warsaw was expected to yield the decision as to enhancing NATO naval capabilities in the Black Sea. The initiative was spearheaded by Romania that had proposed to create the Allied Fleet in the Black Sea.

The proposal appeared after the late 2015 deployment of SM-3 AEGIS Ashore-based interceptors at the US Air Force in Devesel, southern Romania, 35 km from the Bulgarian border. It was well understood in Romania that not only could the country be easily reached by the Russian missiles deployed in the occupied Crimea, but that it also had become a strike target for the new RF Black Sea Fleet missiles.

Alas, due to Bulgaria's refusal whose Prime Minister said he wanted to see cruise ships and not military frigates at the Bulgarian coast, the initiative was tabled.

2. Turkey, the Russian Federation and NATO

Just a few days after President Erdogan's statement above, on the night of July 15-16, 2016, Turkey suffered a coup attempt.

Following the upheavel, the foreign policy of that key NATO Black Sea country began to change rapidly. The October 10, 2016 signing of an agreement with the Russian Federation on the Turkish Stream offshore gas pipeline became the marker of a new turn. As of now, the first pipeline strand has been built and the second will pass directly from the sea through another NATO Black Sea country — Bulgaria.

The developing acute crisis in the Turkey-EU relations could not but raise questions about Turkey's reliability as a NATO member as far back, as 2016. But the 2019 developments, namely Turkey’s acquisition of S-400 missiles, have raised truly grave doubts and sparked open discussions about Turkey's prospects as a NATO member…

3. Crimean (Black Sea) A2 / AD

In 2017, the Russian Federation replaced the S-300 air defense systems it had deployed to Crimea soon after the occupation with the newest S-400. That was the final principal chord in the formation on the peninsula of the so-called A2/AD (anti-access and area denial), that is, the area of unacceptably heavy losses for the prospective foe.

Even excluding the sea-based Caliber rockets, the radii of the Crimean A2/AD missiles cover the entire Black Sea, half of Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Moldova, and southern Ukraine. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet already has 15 new missile ships equipped with the 2500 km-range Caliber missiles and in 2019-2020, expects to have 20.

But the "pumping" of Crimea with weapons continues. According to the Monitoring Group’s data, it is the Southern Military District of the Russian Federation that will be the first to receive fighter jets of the 5th generation Su-57 — either the 3rd Aviation Regiment in Kuban or the 38th Aviation Regiment in Sevastopol. Also in 2019, the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea will get another division of the Bastion coastal missile complex.

4. Occupation of the Ukrainian Shelf

In the first days of the 2014 Crimea occupation, Russia’s special forces seized the Ukrainian Chornomornaftogaz offshore drilling platforms not only right off Crimea, but also, at the Odessa field. The annexed shelf is now guarded round-the-clock by a group of the Russia’s Black Sea Fleet's missile ships. The volume of gas produced there over the years of occupation has already amounted to about 10 billion cubic meters.

Meanwhile, in the Karkinitsky Gulf of the Black Sea, the area of the maritime administrative border between Ukraine’s Kherson region and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, under the watch of the Russian Coast Guard ships, Russia is extracting sea sand at the average volume of about 1 thousand tons per day.

In addition, over the last 5.5 years, all of these objects have also acquired a new vital function — namely, that of the air, surface and underwater monitoring stations (see details from our colleagues in the Dual-Purpose Gas Streams).

Locations of the Neva-BS radar-based surface illumination system and coverage areas)

5. Crimean Missile Corvette Production for the RF Black Sea Fleet

During the occupation, Russian seized 13 Crimean defense enterprises and soon after, incorporated them in the RF defense system.

At present, the Crimean shipyards Morye and Zaliv (Feodosia and Kerch, respectively) are building 9 Caliber-equipped missile corvettes for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Together, they will have a capacity of 72 cruise missiles in a volley. That is, from now on, the Russian Black Sea Fleet will be replenished not from the Russia-based enterprises, but from the Crimean shipyards.

6. The Occupied Crimea as the Syrian War Launchpad

The occupied Crimea has become the launchpad for the RF war in Syria. As of August 1, 2019, of the 100 naval-based Caliber cruise missiles that had struck targets in Syria, 56 were owned by the Russian Black Sea Fleet ships with 44 fired from the corvettes of Russia’s Caspian Flotilla.

The military equipment for the Syrian regime is being delivered from Sevastopol and Novorossiysk on large landing ships of the Black Sea Fleet and other RF fleets, as well as on the auxiliary vessels of the Black Sea Fleet based in the occupied Sevastopol, the so-called "Syrian Express". The final destination is the port of Tartus, a growing naval base of the Russian Federation in Syria.

The numbers of the Syrian Express voyages by warships only, or more specifically, by the large amphibious ships, are as follows: in 2013 - 30, 2014 - 46, 2015 - 69, 2016 - 67, 2017 - 41 and 2018 - 30. After the occupation of Crimea, in 2015-2016, the overall number of the RF BSF runs to Syria doubled.

The 2017-2018 drop in the number of the warship runs is due to the creation of the Sevastopol-based 205th auxiliary vessel detachment that consists of the formerly civilian vessels procured by the Ministry of Defense. The detachment is based in occupied Sevastopol. In addition, the Black Sea Fleet uses about 10 leased dry cargo ships and ferries.

7. The Seizure of the Kerch Strait and Aggression in the Sea of ​​Azov

A new problem that arose in April-May 2018 is the Azov Crisis — the purposeful creation of obstacles to navigation in the Kerch Strait and the Sea of ​​Azov for the ships sailing to the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk.

Among other things, the Azov crisis serves as a training exercise, as a huge number of Russian sailors, Coast Guard ships and aviation have worked out the new algorythms in the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait. Later, in November 2018, the same forces captured of Ukrainian Navy warships in international waters near the Kerch Strait. In 2018, the Russian Federation increased the ship grouping in the Azov and Black Seas. Most of them are based in the occupied Crimea — either in Kerch or in Sevastopol.

However, Ukraine’s main export routes are not in the Sea of Azov, but in the Black Sea — from the Bosphorus to Odessa, Mykolaiv and Kherson. That sea route goes by the Russia-seized Odessa field offshore gas platforms. The future detentions of vessels on the way to/from Odessa, Mykolaiv and Kherson ports may very well be "justified" by the need to safeguard those drilling platforms...

8. The Creeping De Facto Annexation of the Black Sea

Between July 1-12, 2019, during the Sea Breeze-2019, one of the Black Sea exercise regions that stretched from the Ukrainian Zmiiny Island near Odessa coast to Cape Tarkhankut in Crimea was closed off by the Russian Federation by publishing the International Maritime Danger Warning.

But as of July 24, 2019, to obstruct Georgian-American Agile Spirit 2019 training, the Russian Federation has closed already five regions in the Black Sea, including a significant area in the exclusive maritime economic zone of Bulgaria and Romania, and almost entirely the eastern part of the Black Sea from Sochi to Turkey.

The total area of the Black Sea regions shut off by the Russian Navy in July 2019 alone exceeds 120,000 square kilometers, or more than ¼ of the total Black Sea area. Obviously, the purpose here is to gradually get everyone accustomed to the fact that the entire Black Sea is a zone of Russian influence, thus, gradually squeezing NATO out of the region.

9. Turkish Violations of the Crimean Sanctions

At the moment, the biggest problems with Crimean sanctions violations lie not with Turkish shipowners, but mainly with Turkish ports.

While next to Russian,Turkish shipowners remain the largest offenders of the Crimean maritime sanctions regime, we must still give due credit to the Turkish authorities, since over the 5 years of Crimea occupation, the number of infringing vessels owned by Turkish companies has decreased significantly, specifically, from 39 vessels in 2014 to 12 vessels in 2018.

However, the largest number of violations of the Crimean sanctions regime, besides the Russian Federation, involves direct voyages to Crimea from Turkish ports. That is possible because Turkish, Russian and other shipowners falsify the true ports of their destination or departure, i.e. instead of Crimea, indicate Russian ports of Rostov, Temryuk, etc., thus, misleading the Turkish ports management who do not verify the data.

Distribution of the 2018 Crimean Voyages from the Turkish Ports
Based on the Monitoring Results

Throughout the whole period of Crimea occupation, the Turkish authorities who from day one have never officially recognized Russian occupation and annexation, have repeatedly made statements and decisions banning direct maritime connection between the ports of Turkey and the ports of the occupied peninsula.

But due to the lack of respective information control in Turkey's ports, none of those decisions have worked.

In 2018, we recorded 96 direct voyages by vessels of different shipowners and flag countries from the ports of Turkey to those in the occupied Crimea.

69 of those "Turkish" runs headed to Kerch ports, specifically:

43 direct voyages with ilmenite ore cargo (in addition to at least 20 voyages with ilmenite that reloaded cargo on a Kerch Strait roadsted)
13 voyages by ferries that delivered various types of consumer goods to Kerch
7 ship runs delivered cement clinker to the occupied peninsula
3 voyages were involved in the export of Crimean grain
2 ships arrived from Turkish ports to Kerch for scrap metal.

Overall, in 2018, Crimea’s sea import from Turkey included cement, clinker (cement raw material), aerated concrete, gypsum and ilmenite ore with the latter being particularly important for the economy of the occupied peninsula.

Ilmenite ore is a raw material used at the sole Crimean plant, Crimean Titan — the Armyansk-based entersprise in the north of the peninsula that produces pigment titanium dioxide and plays a major role in filling the peninsula’s budget.

In 2018, we have recorded more than 60 voyages carrying the total of 200 thousand tons of ilmenite from the ports of Turkey for Crimean Titan. Most of them - 56 out of 60, or 93%, were made by Russian vessels.

58 of the 60 ilmenite voyages in 2018 started from the Turkish Black Sea port of Samsun, while 2 voyages — from the Turkish Marmara Sea port of Deringe. By the end of 2018, the role of the ilmenite departure port had gradually shifted from Samsun to the Turkish Marmara Sea ports — first to Deringe, and then to Ambarli. As of 2019, the ilmenite continues to be shipped from Ambarli.

20 of the 96 "Turkish" runs arrived at the ports of Sevastopol, specifically:

12 direct voyages delivered construction materials to the occupied city, namely, gypsum, cement and clinker. On the way back, 8 of them exported Crimean grain
7 direct voyages purposefully came in ballast for Crimean grain
1 flight arrived for scrap metal.

7 out of 96 "Turkish" voyages arrived at Feodosia port, specifically:

4 — for Crimean soda ash export and
3 — for Crimean scrap metal export.

The monitoring group has recorded direct voyages to Crimea from 15 Turkish ports, including 51 voyages (53%) from Samsun port and 13 voyages (14%) from Zonguldak port.

The remaining 13 Turkish ports sent off to the occupied peninsula between 1 and 4 voyages each.

According to the monitoring data, in all of these cases, upon leaving the ports of Turkey for the ports of Crimea, the ship owners and captains falsified information as for their real destination, mainly listing Russia’s Port Kavkaz.

Upon approaching and while staying at the Crimean ports, all of these ships shut down their AIS transmitters.

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The Black Sea policy of Ukraine, NATO member states, the EU and international organizations desperately needs urgent changes.

Ukraine should propose to Turkey to not only jointly verify the destination information for all ships sailing from Turkish ports to the Black Sea, but also to establish serious responsibility for the misrepresentation or falsification of such information. Similar actions should be implemented with Romania, Bulgaria and Georgia.

It is also critical to develop a mechanism of counteracting ship voyages with switched off AIS transmitters, the presence of flagless ships in the Black Sea and the like.

But most importantly, we need to develop a common strategy of stopping the ongoing turning of the Black Sea into a Russian lake. As President Erdogan so poignantly stated: «As riparian countries we should live up to our responsibilities. As NATO members, we should take all required steps in all spheres, including the sea, air and ground. Otherwise, the history shall not forgive us…»