Ukraine ports feel squeeze from tensions with Russia
Ukraine’s Azov seaport of Mariupol should be bustling. But as Volodymyr Omelyan, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, arrived for a visit on Sunday, cranes that should have been handling grain and steel cargo were motionless and only a handful of commercial vessels were berthed.
Mr Omelyan said this had been the bleak picture at one of the country’s most important maritime gateways for a week, since three Ukrainian navy vessels, along with their crew of 24, were fired upon and seized by Russian forces. The incident took place at the Kerch Strait, the sole narrow entrance into the Azov sea, which Kiev said was being exploited by Moscow as a chokepoint to step up pressure in the neighbours’ long-running conflict.
“As you can see, nothing is happening . . . the Kerch Strait is blocked by the Russians in what amounts to an economic blockade,” Mr Omelyan said as he surveyed the eerily calm scene at Mariupol and at the nearby port of Berdyansk.
Kiev says Russia has not allowed commercial vessels through the strait, which separates Russia’s mainland from Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Dozens of vessels have incurred heavy losses as they queue on either side of the Russian-built bridge at Kerch, which now serves as a gateway to the Azov sea and its ports.
“The port is not breathing . . . Russia is doing as they please,” said a worker at Berdyansk.
For Ukraine, the latest flare-up follows a pattern of hostility from Moscow since the Crimea annexation and its role in fomenting a separatist war in Ukraine’s far-eastern regions.
“This is not a show . . . the Russians will move [and] if there is no reaction, they will move even further,” said Mr Omelyan.
Kiev has moved dozens of tanks to Mariupol to defend against a possible Russian invasion. Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president’s spokesperson, on Monday described such suggestions as “groundless” and “absurd”.
Russia has blamed bad weather for the interruptions to maritime traffic. But Ukraine said boats heading to or from Russian ports were moving more freely, and pointed to a stepped-up regime of Russian inspections of hundreds of Ukrainian vessels at the strait since last spring.
On Tuesday morning Mr Omelyan said that both ports had on Monday been “partially unblocked” with some vessels making their way through the strait. Attributing the development to international reaction and foreign media attention, Mr Omelyan cautioned that Russia continued to choke shipments through costly and time-consuming inspections.
During his visit to the Azov coast Mr Omelyan also surveyed martial law measures, which are being gradually introduced in regions bordering Russia and the coast to help Ukraine’s military prepare defences and boost security at crucial infrastructure. One of the martial law measures bans combat-age Russian males from entering Ukraine.
Claiming to sometimes carry a gun while travelling to Ukraine’s war-scarred east, Mr Omelyan, who dressed in camouflage himself last week, said it was important to remind Ukrainians and the world that Russia is waging “war” against his country.
While there was no sign of new restrictions on civil liberties in the Azov sea region, residents are on edge. Mariupol, home to two huge steel mills, is just a few kilometres from the front lines between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed fighters from breakaway eastern enclaves
Many Ukrainians think Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, is exploiting the imposition of martial law ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. A widely held view is that he hopes to divert attention from rising utility tariffs and patchy reforms while emphasising his credentials as commander-in-chief.
But Anatoly Petrenko, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, said the Russian threat was “highly credible”.
“It is essential that we protect our key economic interests . . . the Russians are trying to decrease our maritime presence,” Mr Petrenko said. “You have just seen what happened last weekend with a direct attack on Ukrainian ships.”
Conceding that Kiev was outnumbered militarily, both Ukrainian officials said the country needed more western sanctions against Russia as a deterrent and financial as well as military support. They repeated requests for joint naval patrols with Nato countries to keep shipping routes open.
Together the two Azov seaports account for almost 6 per cent of Ukraine’s exports. Mr Omelyan said their standstill threatened to hit living standards and destabilise the region ahead of the elections. He said authorities were preparing contingency plans to address bottlenecks from having to transfer cargo from the Azov sea to Ukraine’s larger Black Sea ports.
Making a historical analogy of Ukraine’s struggle to preserve fragile economic growth while simultaneously defending itself, he said: “When Kozak [Cossack] fighters in medieval times harvested their crops, they carried their swords.”