At a Vital Sea Passage, Russia Seeks to Squeeze Ukraine

By James Marson (Wall Street Journal)

Nov. 27, 2018 11:35 a.m. ET

Well before the seizure of three Ukrainian ships Sunday, Moscow had been delaying traffic through the Kerch Strait, officials and analysts say

MOSCOW—After Russian President Vladimir Putin inaugurated a bridge between Russia and Crimea with great fanfare in May, Moscow quietly opened a new front in its efforts to choke neighboring Ukraine’s economy and deter it from integrating with the West.

Well before this week’s maritime skirmish, Russia began delaying and harassing ships that carry goods to and from major Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov through the narrow Kerch Strait, Ukrainian and Western officials and analysts say.

Moscow’s moves contributed to a sharp drop in trade at key ports, said Andriy Klymenko, a Ukrainian maritime analyst and editor of the Black Sea News website. Cargo turnover at Berdyansk was down 21% in the first 10 months of 2018, and 7% lower in Mariupol, according to data from the Administration of Sea Ports of Ukraine.

“They are gradually turning the key in the lock of the Kerch Strait,” Mr. Klymenko said. Russia’s aim, he said, appears to be “to suffocate Mariupol and Berdyansk.”

Ukraine declared martial law in some regions on Monday, a day after Russia’s coast guard attacked and detained three Ukrainian naval vessels—two armored ships and a tugboat—trying to travel through the Kerch Strait, which links the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea.

The incident raised fears of a sharp escalation in the long-running conflict between the two countries, marked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support for separatists in Ukraine’s east.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Russia was preparing for a full-scale invasion. But analysts said that Russia was more likely to stick to efforts to undermine Ukraine, which have included cyberattacks and economic restrictions.

 “It’s a more local event. There has been no preparation for war, such as a wave of propaganda,” said Aleksei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. Russia is demonstrating its control over the region, and Ukraine and the West have few levers to change the situation, Mr. Makarkin said.

Some European ministers called for further sanctions on Russia over the incident on Tuesday. European ambassadors met for the second day running to discuss the situation and work out a coordinated European Union response.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Monday called the seizure of the ships “yet another reckless Russian escalation.” President Trump is expected to meet Mr. Putin in coming days at a Group of 20 gathering in Buenos Aires.

A court in Crimea ordered the arrest of several of the 24 Ukrainians detained on allegations of illegally crossing the Russian border, Russian news agencies reported. State television also showed three men that it said were Ukrainian service members confessing that the Ukrainian vessels’ actions were aimed at provoking Russia. Kiev denounced what it called forced confessions.


After Mr. Putin opened the bridge connecting Russia with Crimea in May, Russia began to delay passage for ships through the Kerch Strait by hours, and since the summer by days, according to Mr. Klymenko, who tracks ship movements in the region.

Mr. Klymenko said Russia’s squeezing of trade from the ports could be aimed at causing social unrest in cities that are near parts of eastern Ukraine where the separatist conflict has been going on for years.

Ukrainian fishermen say they have also faced increased harassment in the Sea of Azov, particularly after Ukrainian authorities detained a Russian-flagged vessel that was registered in Crimea and its crew in March. In May, Russia detained a Ukrainian fishing boat and five crew members for alleged poaching.

At a meeting in June, Ukrainian security officials warned fishermen in Berdyansk not to travel more than a few miles into the Sea of Azov or risk detention by Russian authorities, according to a person at the meeting.

Valeriy Motora, the captain of the Mariupol Fish Port, said the around 10,000 people who depend on the fishing industry were worried about their jobs and incomes, particularly now that martial law has been declared.

“The situation in Mariupol is difficult,” he said, noting that many fishermen had moved from villages further east that had been hit by fighting.

Russia Fires on Ukrainian Military Vessels Near Crimea

Russian forces fired on and detained three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea, near the Crimean peninsula, a move that threatened to reignite tensions between Moscow and Kiev. Image: FSB Handout via RTR

—Laurence Norman contributed to this article.