Russia's Economic War Against Ukraine in the Sea of Azov and COVID-19. The Monitoring Results for May 2020


Andrii KLYMENKO
Tetyana GUCHAKOVA
Olha KORBUT

The Monitoring Group of the Black Sea Institute of Strategic Studies and BSNews

Translated from Ukrainian by HANNA KLYMENKO

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The Monitoring Group of the Black Sea Institute of Strategic Studies, the Maidan of Foreign Affairs, and BlackSeaNews is glad to share with you the latest in a series of our monthly studies on Russia's economic war against Ukraine in the Sea of Azov.

1. In May 2020, the average duration of artificial delays of vessels en route from the Black Sea to Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov (Mariupol and Berdiansk) by the RF was 10.1 hours (the yearly average for 2019 was 29.9 hours, the average for the 1st quarter of 2020 was 34 hours) – see Chart 1. 

This figure was the lowest since the beginning of the de facto blockade in July 2018.

It is noteworthy that 7 out of 58 vessels (12.1%) went to the Sea of Azov even without a traditional stop in the Kerch Strait.

Another 23 vessels (39.7%) went to the Sea of Azov with a delay of 1-6 hours, which equals the average wait time before the beginning of the de facto blockade.

Thus, overall, half of the vessels (30 out of 58) entered the Sea of Azov in a mode that can be considered normal.

Such a situation was observed for the second month in a row for the first time since June 2018. See the reasons for it below.

2. In May 2020, vessels carrying exports from Mariupol and Berdiansk were delayed at the exit from the Sea of Azov by the Russian Federation for an average of 14.5 hours (the yearly average for 2019 was 37.4 hours, the average for the 1st quarter of 2020 was 34.3 hours) – see Chart 2.

This figure was also the lowest since the beginning of the de facto blockade in July 2018.

Thus, 21 out of 65 "Mariupol" and "Berdiansk" vessels (32.3%) passed from the Sea of ​​Azov to the Black Sea in a mode that can be considered normal.

Such a situation was also observed for the second month in a row for the first time since June 2018.

The decrease in the artificial delay of ships for the second month in a row does not correspond at all to other related processes:

a) the activity of Russian military formations on the front line in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions is increasing;

b) the drinking water crisis on the occupied Crimean peninsula and the rhetoric surrounding it are intensifying;

c) Russian military activity in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov is increasing;

d) the aggressive rhetoric of Kremlin leaders on Ukraine is intensifying.

3. From 22 October 2018 to 1 June 2020, there were no open sea detentions of vessels in the Sea of Azov on the move from/to Berdiansk and Mariupol due to the fact that the Ukrainian Navy’s boats escorted the vessels – see Chart 3.

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Over the past month, the Monitoring Group has become convinced that the main factor that has caused a reduction in the duration of artificial delays of vessels before obtaining the permission to pass through the Kerch Strait is the spread of the coronavirus epidemic in the ships’ countries of origin, as well as in occupied Crimea and Krasnodar Krai of the RF, where ships and boats of the Coast Guard of the Border Service of the FSB of the RF are based.

This has led to the Russian Coast Guard staff members’ fear of getting infected through contact with crew members of vessels, and not only foreign ones, as the virus has spread in Krasnodar Krai as well.

The following situation provides evidence of this.

On 9 June 2020, Russian media reported that the coronavirus was found in three sailors from a ship that arrived in Kerch. The sailors were tested in Krasnodar Krai. After arriving in Kerch, they were on a ship and did not go ashore, they were immediately sent to the Simferopol hospital.

The name of this vessel is not disclosed, but from the context, it is clear that this is a vessel that is based in Crimea and makes voyages to Krasnodar Krai, i.e. through the Kerch Strait. According to our data, the only Kerch-based vessel that operated between the port of Kerch and the port of Kavkaz (Krasnodar Krai of the Russian Federation) in early June is the AVANGARD IMO railway ferry: 9522403. Flag: Russia. Vessel type: Rail/ Ro-ro Cargo.

In addition, according to the monitoring data of the Crimean Human Rights Group, there is a reason to believe that the official statistics for COVID-19 in occupied Crimea underestimate the number of cases.

In Krasnodar Krai, as well as in Crimea, there are fears among the administration and the population that the spread of the virus is facilitated by residents of large cities of the Russian Federation who are trying to go to the seaside during the quarantine. Due to this, road traffic between Crimea and Krasnodar Krai, as well as between the latter and other regions of the Russian Federation has been restricted.

At the same time, the Monitoring Group states that the statements by Russian border guards in the media do not even hint at easing the regime of ships inspection in the Kerch Strait.

On 27 May 2020, the Russian agency TASS published the statement by the First Deputy Director of the FSB of the RF, Head of the Border Service General V. Kulishov who said that "there is still the risk of sabotage and provocations related to transport crossings, Russian and foreign vessels bound for the ports of Crimea."

On 28 May 2020, the Kryminform news agency published the article "On the water, in swamps, and steppes. How border guards are serving in Crimea" (http://www.c-inform.info/comments/id/446).

The article quotes ordinary servicemen of the Coast Guard of the Border Department of the FSB in Crimea on the process of inspection of all foreign vessels (the vast majority of which go to Ukrainian ports). They report that an entire vessel is inspected, spaces, a crew, a ship's documents, in order to detect weapons, ammunition, and persons being on board illegally.

At the end of May 2020, the Russian Federation conducted the command post exercise "Lagoon 2020" in the Sea of ​​Azov (reports were published on 9 June 2020). Not only border guards but also the military, the National Guard, and state bodies of Crimea, Rostov Oblast, and Krasnodar Krai participated in it.

According to the exercise script, the Border Department of the FSB of Russia in the "Republic of Crimea" received information that an armed group of one of the organisations banned in Russia had seized a Russian ship. The trawler was at the roadstead of the port of Temryuk in the area of the Sea of ​​Azov.

A counter-terrorist operation was carried out.

Finally, on 11 May 2020, the head of the Border Department of the FSB of the Russian Federation in Krasnodar Krai was replaced. Lieutenant General (a two-star general rank in Russia) Alexander Ektov has been appointed new head. Prior to this appointment, since October 2014, i.e. during the entire period of the Russian aggression in the Donbas, he had headed the FSB Border Department in Rostov Oblast.

Thus, General Ektov's previous area of responsibility included cooperation with the occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (they border Rostov Oblast of the Russian Federation), including the occupied part of the Azov coast of Ukraine near the Ukrainian city of Novoazovsk. During his leadership, his department ensured covert crossing of the land border with the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by Russian military columns. Under his leadership, the sea area of ​​the Russian border on the Sea of ​​Azov was fortified: electronic means of technical control were installed on the coast, a new base of coast guard ships and boats was built in Taganrog, and their number increased (see details at the link). 

In the Monitoring Group’s opinion, the information provided does not give us a reason to talk about "the end of the blockade". By contrast, this once again confirms that the decrease in the duration of artificial delays has been caused by the coronavirus epidemic and its possible combination with disinformation efforts by the Russian Federation.

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For reference: the areas where freedom of navigation was violated are marked on the map – see Figure 4.

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This publication has been produced with the support of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED). Its contents do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of EED. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this publication lies entirely with the authors.



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