Strategic Waterways and “The Kerch Strait Incident”: Towards Military Escalation?
By Prof Michel Chossudovsky
Global Research, November 26, 2018
On November 25, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) reported that
“three Ukrainian warships had illegally crossed Russia’s state border in the Black Sea and entered Russia’s territorial waters performing dangerous maneuvers…
All three Ukrainian Navy vessels … were detained in the Black Sea” (TASS, November 25).
The incident took place in proximity of the Kerch Straits, the narrow maritime entry from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov.
Since the union of Crimea with Russia in March 2014, the entry into the sea of Azov is fully controlled by Russia. (see image below).
Since May 2018, a new bridge links Eastern Crimea to Russia’s Krasnodar region. (image right)
Are we gearing towards a Kerch Strait Incident, namely a “Pretext” which could potentially lead to armed conflict?
In response to these events, the Ukrainian armed forces have been put on full combat alert, in consultation with NATO. The adoption of martial law was put forth by President Poroshenko (to be debated in the Kiev parliament)
Meanwhile Moscow has called for the convening of an emergency UN Security council meeting. According to the Guardian
“Russia’s foreign ministry has accused Ukraine of coordinating with the US and the EU in a “planned provocation” aimed at securing further sanctions against Moscow, as tensions mount after a dangerous clash between the two countries. (Guardian, 26, November 2018)
Will the Kerch Straits Incident lead to a process of military escalation? In recent developments (November 26), Russia has reopened the Kerch Strait to maritime navigation.
To understand these unfolding events, it is important to analyse the strategic role of the Kerch strait. The naval access from Ukraine Odessa’s port the sea of Azov transits through the Kerch Strait (see map below)
Strategic Waterways and the Kerch Strait
The following section is an edited version from an earlier 2014 GR article by Michel Chossudovsky
The union of Crimea in 2014 with Russia redefines both the geography as well as the geopolitical chessboard in the Black Sea basin.
It constitutes a major setback for US-NATO, whose longstanding objective has been to integrate Ukraine into NATO with a view to undermining Russia, while extending Western military presence in the Black Sea basin.
With the March 18, 2014 Treaty signed between Russia and Crimea, the Russian Federation has extended its control over the Black Sea as well over the Sea of Azov, the West coastline of which borders on Eastern Ukraine and the Donesk region. (see map below)
Under the agreement between Russia and Crimea announced by president Putin, two “constituent regions” of Crimea joined the Russian Federation: the “Republic of Crimea” and the “City of Sevastopol”. Both have the status of “autonomous regions”. The status of Sevastopol as an autonomous entity separate from Crimea is related to the location of Russia’s Naval base in Sevastopol.
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia retained its naval base in Sevastopol under a bilateral agreement with Ukraine. With the signing of the March 18th 2014 Treaty, that agreement is null and void. Sevastopol including the Russian naval base become part of an autonomous region within the Russian Federation. The naval base is no within Ukraine under a lease agreement. Moreover, Crimea’s territorial waters now belong to the Russian Federation.
Following the union of Crimea to Russia now controls a much larger portion of the Black Sea, which includes the entire coastline of the Crimean peninsula. The Eastern part of Crimea –including the Kerch straits– are under Russia’s jurisdiction control. On the Eastern side of the Kerch straits is Russia’s Krasnodar region and extending southwards are the port cities of Novorossiysk and Sochi.
Novorossiysk is also strategic. It is Russia’s largest commercial port on the Black Sea, at the cross-roads of major oil and gas pipelines between the Black Sea and Caspian sea.
Historically, the Kerch strait has played a strategic role. It constitutes a gateway from the Black Sea to Russia’s major waterways including the Don and the Volga.
During World War II, the Kerch peninsula occupied by Nazi Germany (taken back by the Red Army) was an important point of transit by land and water. In the coldest months of Winter, it became an ice bridge linking Crimea to the Krasnodar region.
The Kerch strait is about 5 kilometers in length and 4.5 km. wide at the narrowest point between the tip of Eastern Crimea and the peninsula of Taman. Kerch is a major commercial port linked to railway, ferry and river routes.
[image right: Kerch straits, photo taken from Crimean side, (prior to the construction of the bridge) narrow width, below aerial view of straits]
The Sea of Azov: New Geopolitical Hub
Of significance, the integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation means that Moscow is now in full control of the Kerch Straits linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian authorities are no longer in control of the port of Kerch in Eastern Ukraine. The bilateral agreement between Russia and Ukraine governing the maritime route through the Kerch straights was scrapped.
Kerch Straits prior to construction of bridge
The straits also constitute an entry point into Russia’s major river waterways. The Sea of Azov connects with the Don River and the Volga, through the Volga Don Canal. In turn, the Volga flows into the Caspian sea.
The Kerch straits are strategic. The Kerch-Yenikalskiy Canal allows large (ocean) vessels to transit from the Black sea to the Sea of Azov.
Moreover, the Kerch Strait links the Black Sea to the Volga which in turn connects to the Moscow river through the Volga-Moskva canal.
Full control of the narrow Kerch strait by Russia ensures unimpeded maritime transit from the Black Sea to Russia’s capital as well as the maritime route to the Caspian Sea. (Black Sea- Sea of Azov -Don- Volga Don Canal -Volga -Caspian Sea)
In December 2013 Moscow signed a bilateral agreement with the Yanukovych government in Kiev pertaining to the construction of a bridge across the Kerch Strait, connecting Eastern Crimea (which was part of Ukraine) with Russia’s Krasnodar region. This agreement was a followup to an initial agreement signed in April 2010 between the two governments.
The Russia-Ukraine 2013 agreement pertaining to the construction of the bridge had, for all purposes already been scrapped before March 16, 2014.
Crimea’s union to Russia was already in the pipeline prior to the referendum, it was a fait accompli. Less than two weeks before the March 16 Referendum, at the height of the crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered the state-road building corporation Avtodor, or “Russian Highways” “to create a subsidiary company that will oversee the building of a bridge across the Kerch Strait”.
This bridge would largely be geared towards train transport routes linking Western and Eastern Europe to the Caspian Sea basin, Kazakhstan and China. It is therefore an integral part of the Eurasian Project (linking up with China’s Belt and Road initiative)
The Kerch bridge inaugurated in May 2018 is under Russian ownership and control. The Kerch strait is within Russian territorial waters on both sides of the strait.
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