Ukraine Protests Russian Restrictions on Black Sea Shipping Lanes

Russian Navy tank landing ship arrives at Sebastopol, Feb. 10 (Russian Ministry of Defense)

Published Feb 10, 2022 6:19 PM by The Maritime Executive

Ukraine has issued a diplomatic protest in response to a massive Russian Navy exercise in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, warning that the "unprecedentedly vast area where the maneuvers will be conducted makes navigation in both seas practically impossible."

The exercise areas would constrain access to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea port of Odessa, creating an effective blockade for deep-sea vessels in and out of Ukraine's major seaports. The announcement indicates that the naval exercises will continue from Feb. 13-19, and the end date coincides with the conclusion of massive Russian Army drills along Ukraine's borders. 

"Such aggressive actions of the Russian Federation, which fit into the concept of its hybrid war against Ukraine, are unacceptable," wrote the Ukrainian foreign ministry in protest. "This is a manifestation of open disregard for the norms and principles of international law, including the UN Charter, UN General Assembly resolutions and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea." 

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv also objected to the Russian announcement. "Under the pretext of military exercises, Russia restricts Ukraine's maritime sovereignty, limits freedom of navigation in the Black Sea/Sea of Azov, and impedes maritime traffic essential to Ukraine's economy," the embassy wrote in a social media post. 

The exercise announcement comes as the Russian Navy increases its resources in the region. Last month, Russia dispatched six tank landing craft from the Baltic Sea, augmenting seven amphibs already attached to the Black Sea Fleet. The flotilla arrived in Sevastopol on Thursday after a 7,000 nautical mile journey around Europe. With these extra vessels, the Black Sea Fleet has the capacity to deliver dozens of armored vehicles and thousands of troops to unimproved beach landing zones. 

Analysts believe that the military exercises elevate the risk of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, as large numbers of Russian assets are in place and activated for live-fire drills.

The former commander of U.S. Army Europe, Gen. Ben Hodges (ret'd), told podcaster Dana Lewis that he believes an amphibious assault - not a cross-border attack - is the most likely scenario if Russia decides to invade Ukraine. On the odds, he said that he is 90 percent certain that an invasion is coming soon. 

"I think more likely we're going to see amphibious operations on the Black Sea coast and the coast of the Sea of Azov, probably with Russian fixed-wing aircraft providing support," he said. "I just don't see the big red arrow going into Kyiv . . . I think if it's that [full-scale land invasion], then everybody in Europe would have to go along with the worst possible sanctions. And I think the Kremlin would like to avoid that."

Alternatively, if the Kremlin decides not to invade, it could "simply suffocate Ukraine from the sea," according to former Ukrainian minister of defense Andrii Zagorodniuk. In an interview with Foreign Policy, he suggested that a blockade of commercial shipping in and out of Odessa is a possible outcome. “They don’t need to kill people for that. So they’re not going to be denounced as war criminals and they don’t even need to announce it, they can just do it,” he said.