Sea of Azov: The Hot Backwater of New Cold War
The Crimean thorn in Ukraine’s side
Contrary to all the predictions made by Ukrainian “experts”, a group which, alas, included otherwise intelligent and educated individuals who should have known better, the Crimea Bridge formally opened in May 2018 and, by mid-July 2018, had already carried a million motor vehicles into and from Crimea. This remarkable infrastructure project de-facto lifted Ukraine’s overland blockade of the peninsula, to which maritime supply routes were only a partial and weather-dependent solution.
Being a major tangible and public relations victory for Russia, the Crimea Bridge naturally “triggered” all manner of Russia’s foes who made it plain they view it as an attractive target. A prominent US newspaper columnist and a retired British Army colonel visiting Ukraine both “advised” the government of Ukraine that it should attack and destroy the structure. Ukrainian social media are full of exhortations and even promises by a variety of semi-official “volunteer battalion” actors to stage acts of sabotage.
If the past few years have taught Moscow anything, it’s that unofficial “thinking out-loud” can very quickly become not only official policy but a fait accompli. Thus the completion of the Crimea Bridge was accompanied by a range of security measures, though the structure does benefit from the ongoing of strengthening of Russia’s defense posture in the Black Sea region which includes strengthening Russia’s aero-naval warfare potential based in Crimea Peninsula. The Black Sea Fleet and the associated Caspian Sea Flotilla have been noticeably reinforced in recent years with modern submarines, frigates, and corvettes, with all three types of vessels capable of carrying multirole Kalibr cruise missile. Moreover, since the two seas are linked by a network of rivers and canals, Caspian Sea missile corvettes have been sent to Black Sea in the past, either to reinforce the peninsula’s defenses or in preparation for a sortie to the Tartus naval base in Syria. Russia’s Naval Aviation currently boasts some 22 Su-30SM multirole fighters which demonstrated their anti-ship capabilities both in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, where they sunk a retired Syrian Navy frigate using Kh-35 Uran anti-ship missiles, with Crimea’s Belbek airbase steadily increasing its contingent of these fighters.
The Bridge itself is the focus of a number of thus far not overly publicized security measures aimed at preventing an attack or an act of sabotage coming from both land and sea directions. The FSB strongly implied, in response to the noises emanating from Ukraine, that any attempt at sabotage would be met with lethal force, which thus far has been sufficient to dissuade Ukrainian blowhards. So even though Ukrainian saboteurs have been captured in Crimea, no concrete plots against the Crimea Bridge have been discovered. Moreover, it is abundantly clear that an attack on the Bridge by a clearly identified state actor, be it in the form of special operations or an air/naval strike, would be an act of war against the Russian Federation which would naturally provoke a retaliation.
Heating up the Azov
Ukraine is clearly not in a position to risk this kind of an escalation, and even NATO, which already demonstrated in Syria that it is not interested in a shooting war with Russia, has kept clear of the Crimea Bridge and the Sea of Azov. Remarkably, NATO naval forces have thus far refrained from venturing into the Sea of Azov in order to exercise its “freedom of navigation” rights in the way the US Navy has done with the PRC-claimed islands in the South China Sea, even though US freighters have entered and exited the area with cargoes of grain and iron from Ukrainian ports. The 2018 iteration of the annual NATO-Ukraine “Sea Breeze” naval exercise was, as before, centered on Odessa and did not schedule any events for the Sea of Azov.
So instead the confrontation shifted into the realm of “hybrid warfare”, though it is not clear by what process that escalation was engineered. If the past is any guide, the mere exhortations to attack the Crimean bridge by Western unofficial sources could be sufficient in persuading Poroshenko the West has its back, as it had in virtually every other escalation to date. On the other possible, it is at least equally possible the pattern here is the same as in the case of the abortive “blockades” of Crimea and Donbass which originated at lower levels in order to extract tribute for the participating Ukraine government agencies and their ministers. The first “shot” of this hybrid clash was the seizure of the Nord fishing boat and of its crew for a prolonged period of time, an act which was followed by similar actions against other Russian shipping in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea in general.
Russian reaction followed the pattern established in earlier conflict episodes in Ukraine and Syria. While not immediate, it was well thought out and thorough.Even though Ukraine declared a “live fire zone” in the international waters off Mariupol and Berdyansk, Ukrainian civilian vessels heading to and from these two ports found themselves facing an array of Russian maritime Border Guard cutters which on average board several Ukrainian vessels a day (thus far the daily record is seven ships) and carry out detailed inspections accompanied by questioning of the crew members. Ukrainian social media posted reports of individuals who underwent this treatment, which consisted of making copies of international Interestingly, the questioning of the crew members included inquiries concerning their military service, relatives in the Russian Federation, participation in the Donbass war including whether one fired weapons at the “separatists”, participation in and attitude toward the “volunteer battalions”, Right Sector, and Azov Regiment, and even one’s attitudes toward the “separatists”. At least two Ukrainian ships were placed under arrest for illegal fishing activities and sent to Russian ports. By mid-July 2018, the total number of Ukrainian ships thus affected reached nearly 150, demonstrating Ukraine’s capabilities at this kind of harassment are clearly inferior to Russia’s.
Next step: false flag?
By mid-July, even Kiev had to acknowledge the Nord provocation had backfired, as the Russian maritime inspections on the Sea of Azov have been effective at disrupting Ukrainian shipping and are causing dissatisfaction among the ship-owners. That does not necessarily mean the conflict is about to end. As the experience of the Donbass demonstrates, Ukraine will use a tactic until it is shown to be ineffective—and then it will seek to invent a new one. Therefore one should expect new methods of interfering with the operation of the Crimea bridge and seeking to establish control over the Sea of Azov.
However, given the disparity in forces and NATO’s evident unwillingness to become embroiled in Russia-Ukraine quarrels on the Sea of Azov, the attack could not leave Ukrainian fingerprints. The weapon that could be used for such an attack is the Neptun anti-ship missile currently under development in Ukraine, which represents a clone of the Russian Kh-35 Uran. A land-launched Neptun, which presumably likewise uses a combination of inertial and active radar-guidance, could be effective at targeting the more radar-reflective parts of the bridge. If the attack took place at the same time as a live-fire Russian naval exercise on the Black Sea, Ukrainian, Western, and even Russian opposition media would waste no time labeling it a “Russian missile”, just as the Buk which brought down MH-17 was a “Russian missile”. If Ukraine could still rely on Western information warfare support, it would make Russian retaliation far more difficult to contemplate, which could make this form of attack attractive for Kiev.
Kiev in the aftermath of Helsinki Summit
The Sea of Azov and the Crimea Bridge are merely focal points of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis, which in turn is a component of the broader West-Russia one. Therefore the outermost layer of the Crimea Bridge and Sea of Azov security is Russian diplomacy which seeks to remove threats to its interests and sovereignty before they have to be dealt with military force. Ukraine clearly was on the agenda at Helsinki and, judging by the nervous reactions in Ukraine, it did not go as Kiev would have hoped. The hysterical reactions in the neocon-dominated media to the remarkably non-confrontational joint appearance of Putin and Trump raises the danger of attempts to sabotage the early “green shoots” of US-Russia détente. To date, the preferred theater for staging such provocations has been Syria, but given the emergence of diplomatic consensus among Syria’s neighbors, the nearing end of the civil war, and the effectiveness with which Russia countered the Douma false flag, that country is losing its attractiveness. Therefore the choice of escalation might fall on Ukraine and seas which border it.