Ukraine's SBU security service has announced that it is blacklisting foreign seafarers who have visited Crimean ports for three years, extending its crackdown on Crimean shipping to individual crewmembers in addition to vessels.
Russian-allied rebel forces set up an autonomous government in the Crimea in 2014, effectively resulting in a Russian annexation of the strategic peninsula. As the Ukrainian government no longer has a presence in Crimea, it cannot operate checkpoints at the peninsula's seaports, meaning that – according to the SBU – entry into the “occupied territory” of Crimea by sea is unregulated and therefore illegal. The only legal means of entry into Crimea is via crossing points at the border with mainland Ukraine, the SBU says.
"In connection with the violation of the procedure for the entry into and exit from the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine [Crimea], such foreigners will not be able to visit Ukraine for the next three years, including as part of crews of other ships," the SBU said in a statement.
Ukrainian authorities have been clamping down on ships calling at Crimea since July 2014, and technically has the legal authority to close the peninsula's ports, said maritime lawyers with Ince & Co. - although not every nation is likely to abide by the restriction.
“As a matter of international law, and notwithstanding the fact that Russia is in effective control, Crimea is part of Ukraine. Ukraine has now closed the Crimean Ports. As a matter of Ukrainian law, it is illegal for vessels to call there, although Russian-flagged vessels will no doubt continue to do so.”
The port closures have had economic repercussions far beyond Ukraine. London Stock Exchange-listed tourism firm All Leisure Group has faced headwinds due to reduced demand for tours in the Middle East, but also from trouble in the Ukraine. "Popular Black Sea cruise itineraries to Crimea remain off limits due to the ongoing political situation in the region,” the firm said in a statement Tuesday outlining its reasons for its recent financial difficulties.
Many European operators have shown a willingness to visit Crimean ports despite Ukraine's warnings, Lloyd’s List says. Lloyd’s conducted an investigation of trade data for Crimea and found a significant number of ships with European ties calling at banned ports. “Can the Ukrainian government tell me where I can and cannot go with my vessel?” one German shipowner reportedly said. Greek-owned vessels were the most frequent visitors, with 275 port calls over the span of 2015.
With so many foreign ships calling at banned ports, with a dozen or more crewmembers each, the number of seafarers affected by Ukraine's three-year blacklisting could be significant.
Prior SBU actions demonstrate the legal risks of Crimean calls for shipowners and crew, even under the best of circumstances. In 2015, Ukrainian authorities arrested a Turkish-owned cargo ship and detained its captain over a visit the vessel made to a port in Crimea.
The Tuvalu-flagged general cargo ship Kanton had called at Sevastopol in Crimea on July 24, 2014 to pick up a cargo of barley - before Ukraine had notified international shipping companies and insurers of the ban, owners Master Shipping said. The firm added that they'd received SBU’s assurances that their vessel would not be affected. However, prosecutors said the ship was being held in the Ukrainian port of Kherson, and her crew could be jailed for up to five years.
"The Ukrainian authorities have, despite their written permission, forcefully seized our papers and made the decision to detain our vessel after preventing the vessel's departure for 17 days," it said. The firm added that regardless of any action against the Kanton, the detained crew had not been on the vessel during its 2014 port call in Crimea and therefore had no involvement in the case.
As of February 2016, the Kanton's AIS position had not updated since April 2015 at Kherson. The ship was just one of 44 Turkish vessels marked for arrest by Ukrainian authorities last year.