Russia attacks and seizes three Ukrainian ships; seeks to landlock eastern Ukraine.
“We need to fucking fuck them up, fuck…it seems like the president is controlling all this shit,” a Russian commander tells the captain whose ship rammed a Ukrainian military tug-boat in the Kerch Strait while another used live ammunition against a Ukrainian warship (see video).
It looked more like piracy than self-defence. The Russian coastguards, part of the FSB, or security service, seized the Ukrainian ships and captured 23 sailors, wounding six of them. They took them to Crimea, a chunk of Ukraine that Russia grabbed four years ago. In 2014 Russia acted deniably, sending “little green men” in unmarked fatigues to Crimea. This time its forces acted openly, under the Russian flag.
The crisis did not emerge from out of the blue. It is the culmination of six months of growing Russian pressure on Ukraine. Having in 2004 annexed Crimea, Russia is now restricting access from Ukraine’s eastern ports to the Black Sea, and thence to the Mediterranean and the world.
To get to the Black Sea, ships must pass through the Kerch Strait (see map). On May16th Russia opened a bridge across the strait that is too low for large ships. It also moved five naval vessels from the Caspian to the Sea of Azov. Russia’s coastguard has since then detained scores of Ukrainian and foreign merchant ships—more than 140 between May and August—for hours and even days at a time, in what amounts to an undeclared blockade.
An agreement between Russia and Ukraine in 2003, before Ukraine tried to break away from Russia’s sphere of influence, established joint control of the Sea of Azov. Now both sides of the strait that controls access to it are held by Russia. Immediately after the latest clash, Russia briefly parked a tanker across the waterway, to remind Ukrainians what Vladimir Putin’s promises are worth. Ukrainians fear that his next move will be to take control of the whole of the Sea of Azov—a huge strategic prize—and further endanger the port of Mariupol, Ukraine’s third largest.
The detentions, delays and uncertainty have already strangled eastern Ukrainian ports like Mariupol and Berdyansk. The new bridge has bottled up 144 Ukrainian ships that are too tall to slip under its 33-metre structure. Shipping in and out of Mariupol has fallen by a quarter.
Ukraine cannot fight back. It lost up to 80% of its navy when Crimea was annexed, since most of its ships were moored there and the Russians pinched them. Now, the most formidable vessel owned by Mariupol’s coastguard is an old fishing boat confiscated from Turkish poachers.
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