Volodymyr Zablotskyi військово-морський експерт Defence Express

Russia’s Azovian knot

30 December 2018, 09:29

Russia’s escalation near the Kerch Strait on November 25 has undoubtedly divided its confrontation with Ukraine in the Azov Sea into two distinct periods. Whereas prior to this some experts had certain doubts about withdrawing from the 2003 agreement between Ukraine and Russia on the status of the Azov Sea, this incident has only made it more urgent that Ukraine do so. Moreover, this incident was preceded by events that unsurprisingly got everyone’s attention.

Until November 25, Ukraine’s naval vessels had been moving freely through the Kerch Strait and in the Azov Sea. They had complete freedom to navigate them at any time as long as they maintained navigational safety. That day, a small Ukrainian naval detachment consisting of a A947 tugboat called Yany Kapu under Captain Oleh Melnychuk and two small armored vessels, the U175 Berdiansk under Sr. Lt. Roman Mokriak and the U176 Nikopol under Sr. Lt Bohdan Nebelytsia, were carrying outa scheduled transfer from Odesa to Berdiansk. On board the three vessels were 23 sailors, petty officers and officers.

Dangerous maneuvers in the Kerch Strait. Russia’s Izumrud rams Ukraine’s Yany Kapu tugboat (right)


Although the dispatching service was notified in advance of the arrival of the detachment, instead of receiving assistance with the crossing, the Ukrainian boats were advised to wait in queue at a designated anchorage. Further, they were neither given permission to move ahead nor further advice.

In this kind of situation, the boats continued to navigate towards the Azov Sea, which was their right to do. Meanwhile, FSB and RF Black Sea Fleet ships and cutters began to get in their way. A total of 8 Russian vessels – border patrol cutters Sobol, Don, Izumrud and Mangust, and the anti-submarine Suzdalets among them – began to deliberately interfere with their passage. First they demanded that the Ukrainian captains stop and change course and even physically tried to stop the vessels by ramming them. 

However, the maneuverable tugboats succeeded in evading the ramming of the much larger FSB cutter. At this point, nearly a dozen boats and cutters were trying to maneuver in a relatively small expanse of water. The Russians twice rammed the Yany Kapu at this point, damaging the tug and putting one of its two main diesel engines out of commission. The tug lost some control while the armored vessels also pushed away from the tug. Needless to say, such dangerous maneuvering led to accidents: two of the Russian border patrol cutters, the Don and Izumrud, crashed into each other and caused serious damage that was confirmed in intercepted radio transmissions.

Ukraine’s losses. The Berdiansk and Nikopol were captured by the enemy. Three seamen were wounded; three had serious injuries


Meanwhile, the Russians stopped navigation in both directions using a made-up excuse: that a tanker was landing on the shore. They also blocked the passage under the Kerch Bridge by parking another tanker, the Sevastopol, across the channel. Russia even brought SU-25 combat jets and KA-52 battle helicopters to the scene.

This incredible activity by the Russians and their seemingly desperate desire to stop the Ukrainian detachment from entering the Azov Sea had one simple explanation: the operation was being controlled at a distance by the Kremlin, meaning, Putin himself. Information gathered from the interception of radio communications by Ukrainian intelligence testified that the situation was extremely tense in the Kremlin and that orders to the FSB border patrol cutters were being issued personally by PM Medvediev 

At this point, the Russians began to threaten the Ukrainian vessels with the use of force. Given that the Kerch Strait was made impassable, the Ukrainian Navy Command told the detachment to return to Odesa. The captain of the Berdiansk radioed this information to the Russian border patrol, stating as well that he had no intention of using force. This completely responsible act will be judged accordingly.

But the Russians thought otherwise. After the Ukrainian detachment withdrew into the neutral waters of the Black Sea, they blocked its way, once again. The Izumrud fired a round of 30mm shot from a machine gun across the Berdiansk’s path, demanding that the vessel stop, and then opened artillery fire with intent to damage. This was about 21-22 km from the Crimean shore, more than 40 km southeast of Kerch. The light armored cutter was damaged and unable to move, and some of the sailors aboard were injured, including the captain and two contracted servicemen. At the same time, the Yany Kapu tug was also shot, where three more men were injured and new damage inflicted.

During the shooting, the Russian side blocked the Ukrainian detachment’s radio communication so that they could not communicate with their commander. The international system for identifying vessels, AIS, was also blocked, which is in violation of international shipping rules. Still, the Ukrainian crews did not respond in kind to all the provocations and open fire at the Russians.

At around 21:00, the FSB cutter Don boarded a special forces unit on the shot up boats, which arrested the personnel and hijacked one cutter and the tug. The Nikopol, which was not damaged, continued to maneuver to avoid being boarded and leave the area of the conflict on its own. But it was blocked by the Russians, who had greater numbers, and there was no way that it could get away. Based on available information, the Nikopol was soon surrounded and also forced to move back towards Kerch. There, Russian special forces also boarded it, fought the crew who resisted to the last, and took over the cutter. Some of the seamen were wounded. At this point, what is known is that six of the Ukrainian seamen had been hurt, and two were in serious condition. They were supposedly operated on in Moscow, which confirms the heaviness of their injuries.

RELATED ARTICLE: Russia’s Azov blockade

One point must be made here: international marine law and the ship’s charter state that the territory of a warship is inviolable, like the territory of an independent state, and invading it is considered an act of war.

Reaction from the Ukrainian public, domestic politicians, and the press to this Russian attack on Ukrainian navy vessels in the Black Sea was swift and strong. The response from the European Union, however, was muted at best. The “concern” expressed by Frederica Mogherini seemed even less than what European politicians said in the spring of 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine and occupied Crimea. Perhaps sated, wealthy Europe, where there is no war and no one’s shooting at anyone, was too busy discussing Brexit, the refugee issue, or the dispute between Spain and the UK over Gibraltar to respond to this government-sponsored piracy on the high seas carried out by Vladimir Putin’s minions. Or perhaps the scent of cheap Russian gas is causing memory loss in Berlin. The US and NATO responded more robustly.

Surely the occupying force could have limited itself to preventing access to the Azov Sea to the Ukrainian detachment, which would have then turned around and returned to Odesa, as it initially tried to do. But in a classic FSB move, the Russians needed to have a suitable news story for this clearly planned incident: a chase, shooting, and a finale that suited the attackers. The Kremlin was obviously itching to remind everyone about it.

If psychological language is used, the attacker here has all the signs of a psychotic terrorist. First is the need to get as much publicity as possible for his actions in order to keep blackmailing the victim. This characteristic is what differentiates a terrorist from an ordinary saboteur, for whom advertising is precisely undesirable.

Social nets immediately flashed with widespread discussions of Russia’s actions in the around Kerch. Along with the natural desire of many to offer personal opinions on the situation, there were those who were clearly doing their best to make political hay and discredit the country’s political and military leadership.

In contrast to the practice of criticizing the government in the press of democratic countries, some Ukrainian press and television channels allow themselves to make openly unpatriotic statements, which typically come from little-known “experts.” For instance, the evening of November 25, on Channel 112 a man who claimed to be a participant in the ATO came close to saying that Vice Admiral of Ukraine’s Navy Ihor Voronchenko had betrayed the country: “Giving up boats and the coastal defense in Crimea” and “the incompetent command” in the ATO zone. The question that came to mine was whether this was a complete coincidence – or part and parcel of the Kremlin’s hybrid war and just one component of an FSB operation?

Officer’s honor. Berdiansk Captain Roman Mokriak refuses to testify to the FSB


So how should Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine on November 25 be treated? The Navy Command says that this qualifies ass an act of war according to Point D, Art. 3 of Resolution #3314 (XXIX) of the UN General Assembly dated December 14, 1974: “An attack by the armed forces of a state on the land, sea or air forces, or marine and air fleets of another state.”

The Arts. 17 and 38 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and Art 2 of the 2003 Treaty between Ukraine and the Russian Federation on Cooperation in the Use of the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait, Ukraine’s military vessels have free passage of both the Strait and the Sea, so they can sail through the Kerch Strait at any time as long as they are navigating safely. Russia openly violated these agreements. Art. 17 “Right of innocent passage” also states that“ships of all States, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea.” Art. 38 also states: “In straits referred to in Art. 37, all ships and aircraft enjoy the right of transit passage, which shall not be impeded.” Russia interferes in Ukraine’s exercise of this right.

In addition, Art. 2 of the 2003 Treaty allows for commercial vessels and military boats, as well as the ships of other countries sailing under the flag of Ukraine or Russia and are being used not commercial purposes can freely navigate the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait. Once again, Ukraine is now being prevented from exercising this freedom to navigate.

So, what was this all about? Moscow flexing it muscles as a criminal capo yet another time? An attempt to raise the stakes at a time when Ukraine is facing important events – the presidential and Rada elections in 2019? To scare official Kyiv? All of the above?

How the rest of the world reacts to the latest blatant crimes of the Putin regime is anyone’s guess, but this savagery needs to be punished. Given its own state interests, Ukraine needs to start the process of abrogating the bilateral 2003 Treaty on the Azov Sea as one that is no longer being upheld. Bitter experience has shown Ukraine that delaying costs dearly. Otherwise, Russia will continue to cause harm and mayhem.

Experts say that, despite continuing sanctions, Russia is quite capable of moving into open war against Ukraine. The most dangerous time for this will be the period right after the elections, at the end of 2019. Things will be particularly dangerous if the Kremlin’s efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within fail.


1. The 23-meter light armored cutter registered as 58155 has a displacement of 54 tonnes, top speed of 25 knots, and a crew of five, including one officer, the commander. It is armed with two combat systems: a KAU-30M 30-mm cannon, a grenade launcher, a 7.62 machine-gun and two Barrier anti-tank missiles, and a MANPAD. The vital areas of the boat are protected by bulletproof armor.

2. The 29.3 m A947 tug Yany Kapu, previously called the Krasnoperekopsk, registered as 498 has a displacement of 303 t and maximum speed of 11.3 knots. It has no built-in weaponry. During crossings, two DSK machine-guns were installed. It has a crew of six.


Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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