After illegally annexing Crimea in 2014, Russia declared it would build a 12-mile-long road-and-rail bridge across the Kerch Strait, connecting mainland Russia to the occupied Crimean Peninsula. And last year (2016), with construction underway, Moscow officials promised that the building of this massive bridge would “in no way limit [maritime] navigation in the Kerch-Enikalsk Channel [a deeper, navigable portion of the Kerch Strait, linking the Black and Azov Seas], ensuring free passage for vessels both during the construction phase and in the period of use” (RIA Novosti, February 19, 2016). But instead of holding to this pledge, freedom of passage via the Kerch Strait—which in fact is protected by international law—is now at serious risk due to Russian actions. In May, Moscow revealed the new maximum dimensions of ships allowed to pass through the Strait: due to the unique construction features of the Kerch Bridge, to cross underneath vessels can be no more than 160 meters long, 31 meters wide and 33 meters tall, with a draft of up to 8 meters (Ports.com.ua, June 14; 0629.com.ua, June 21). And this past August, Russia for the first time fully closed the Kerch Strait on account of the bridge work, citing construction requirements while it fitted the central arches on the structure (Bsamp.ru, Bsamp.ru.pdf, accessed September 5). Officially, Russia pre-emptively declared that maritime passage across the Strait would be closed for 23 non-consecutive days in August–September (Cfts.org.ua, June 14).
The construction of the Kerch Bridge violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Un.org, accessed September 5) as well as a number of other internationally recognized agreements and regulations. Based on provisions found in the 2004 treaty between Ukraine and the Russian Federation on cooperation in the use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait (Rada.gov.ua, accessed September 5), the construction of a bridge from Russia to Crimea would had to have been agreed upon with Kyiv. But the Ukrainian government never gave its blessing for the project. Moreover, Ukrainian officials have stated that “further construction and commissioning of the Kerch Bridge will lead to a significant reduction of ship calls to the Mariupol and Berdyansk seaports, a decrease in [shipping trade] turnover at these ports, a slowdown in their development, a decrease in the profitability of the region’s metallurgical enterprises, [as well as] a reduction in profits for the port operators and branches of the seaport administration—all of which Ukraine finds unacceptable” (Ports.com.ua, June 21).
Presently, Kyiv is preparing a lawsuit against Moscow for violating international law by building the Kerch Bridge and temporarily unilaterally closing the Strait (Interfax, August 2). But it will take several months before Ukraine can firm up its case for such a suit (Mind.ua, August 8), and the ensuing trial will take more time as well (Apostrophe, August 7). Meanwhile, the daily cost of one merchant vessel having to wait outside the Kerch Strait (when unilaterally closed by Russia) is estimated to be around $20,000; and generally, 70–90 merchant vessels make the trip through the Strait to and from Ukrainian seaports every day. Russian restrictions on this passage have already raised the cost of freight and have pushed Mariupol’s leading metallurgical business group to transfer its shipping cargo to Mykolaiv (located west of Crimea) (Mind.ua, August 8). Ukrainian ports on the Azov Sea are projected to lose around $190 million during the 23 days in August–September Russia announced it would close the Strait (Interfax, August 2).
The long-term economic damage to Ukraine will be even greater. After the central arches are installed on the Kerch Bridge, passage through the Strait for Mariupol-bound Panamax-class vessels will be impossible because their height can reach 37.5 meters (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, June 30). Mariupol seaport—sometimes referred to as the “Sea Gates of Donbas”—is Ukraine’s main outlet for metal exports thanks to its specialized port facilities and proximity to the industry. And because of the restrictions being posed by the Kerch Bridge, trade turnover in Mariupol is anticipated to fall by 25–30 percent. Indeed, Russia’s actions of sealing off the Kerch Strait to Ukrainian commercial vessels, effectively cutting Mariupol and Berdyansk off from the Black Sea, could have a debilitating economic impact on the entire Donbas region. Moreover, these shipping restrictions run the risk of undermining an already delicate social situation in Mariupol, which is heavily dependent on its ability to export Ukrainian steel to international markets.
All of these Russian activities should be considered in connection with Moscow’s attempts to establish a so-called “land corridor to Crimea” (Krymr.com, March 18). Within this context, the intermittent closures of the Kerch Strait look like one more example of Russian-style “hybrid” warfare—whereby socio-physiological destabilization precedes an overt military blitzkrieg. The Russian game vis-à-vis this vulnerable Ukrainian region is thus possible to anticipate. Moscow’s actions regarding the Kerch Strait are likely to include further “access limitation” (“Restrictions scenario”) with different freedom-of-navigation restrictions as well as an “access denial” (“Blockade scenario”) policy, which would involve a unilateral Russian decision to call this strait “Russian internal waters.” Both scenarios (“Restrictions” and “Blockade”) are directly contradicted by international law and would negatively influence Ukraine and third countries—the Mariupol-based Ilyich Iron and Steel Works alone delivers its products by sea to more than 80 countries around the world (Metinvest Holding, accessed September 6).
What can be done to avoid these negative scenarios? Some ideas have already been proposed by various experts (Apostrophe, August 7; Portinfo.com.ua, August 15; Mfaua.org, August 21). Specifically, a pragmatic as well as proactive approach by Ukraine could include:
- Informing Western leaders and the international community about the threats posed by the Kerch Bridge construction as well as explaining the current Ukrainian response and noting the urgent need for Western support to Kyiv;
- Initiating an International Maritime Security Conference in Kyiv or in Odesa and inviting various famous politicians, strategists and think tank experts from Western maritime powers. The Conference would help to create a clear road map for a Ukrainian and international community response to Russian actions;
- Carrying out practical freedom-of-navigation activities in the Kerch Strait by both Ukrainian and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) vessels.
The current situation around the Kerch Strait is, indeed, serious. Not only do the restrictions and closures of the Strait threaten crude iron exports from Mariupol to the United States and Europe, but also could spark other negative outcomes for Ukraine and the Black Sea’s NATO littoral states.