Strategic Waterways and “The Kerch Strait Incident”: Towards Military Escalation?

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Written by Prof Michel Chossudovsky; Originally appeared at Global Research

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). Strategic Waterways and “The Kerch Strait Incident”: Towards Military Escalation?

Since May 2018, a new bridge links Eastern Crimea to  Russia’s Krasnodar region. (image right)

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Are we gearing towards a Kerch Strait Incident, namely a “Pretext” which could potentially lead to armed conflict?

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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 to the Sea of Azov transits through the Kerch Strait (see map below)

Strategic Waterways and “The Kerch Strait Incident”: Towards Military Escalation?

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.

Strategic Waterways and “The Kerch Strait Incident”: Towards Military Escalation?
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]

Strategic Waterways and “The Kerch Strait Incident”: Towards Military Escalation?

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.

Strategic Waterways and “The Kerch Strait Incident”: Towards Military Escalation?

Moreoever, the Kerch Strait links the Black Sea to the Volga which in turn connects to the Moscow river through the Volga-Moskva canal.

(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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  • Barba_Papa

    Calling the territorial waters around Crimea Russian is still up to debate, as the West and Ukraine will obviously see it differently. Unilateral annexation does not make the Crimea Russian, just like unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights makes those territories Israeli. Whilst possession is 9/10th of the law for that you need international recognition. So until Ukraine formally recognizes that the Crimea is now Russian territory, or at least the West, the status of Crimea’s international waters will remain iffy.

    That being said, if you’re sending out your ships to have a pleasure cruise in disputed waters you’re clearly out to poke the sleeping bear. You’re clearly trying to provoke something. This is usually how wars (re)start.

    • Yankee Doodle

      All borders are debatable.
      The Greeks, Persians, Romans, Spanish, French, British, Soviets, etc pretty much decided what was official and what was not. All borders are fluid. No borders have remained stable for more than a few centuries.

      The 1st Crimean War, WW1, WW2, Fall of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, etc, just very recent examples of international borders changing in that region alone.

      The Birth of the new ‘Superstate’ called the EU (the fledgling United States of Europe being built) will further change borders and create a new European Fedral Superstate in time.

      Check out this video showing European borders change over 1000 years speeded up to get the picture (not best video but great to remind people that borders are fluid things):

      https://youtu.be/M90C7FA4FYU

      • gustavo

        Excellent historical view. Any blind person can see that Crimea has been part of Russia (URSS) since 1750, for almost three hundred years !!! my friend.

      • gustavo

        Please, send us the link.

        • Yankee Doodle

          Cant find it, but if you put the title into Youtube it will come up.

          • gustavo

            Thanks, I found it.

    • northerntruthseeker .

      Again.. the term “annexation” is the wrong terminology in terms of Crimea..

      Crimea voted overwhelmingly in an open and fully watched and verified referendum as to whether to stay with Ukraine or go with the Russian Federation… The Crimean people properly decided their future which they had every right to do and they decided to go with Russia.

      The Kerch Strait can be put under the same terms that the Bosporus has been for centuries.. Open for free transit of vessels with the only restrictions being types of warships transiting..

      • Barba_Papa

        Open and fully watched and verified referendum my ass! Proper elections take months to prepare even under the best of circumstances. If a referendum were to be organized in the Netherlands within a week I
        wouldn’t trust the results no matter who would say they were fair and
        representative. And these happened within a week of those ‘ mysterious green men’ taking over, using the former state apparatus of the Ukrainian state, which is hardly the best of circumstances.

        No, sorry, I’m not buying it. I’m perfectly willing believe that most people in the Crimea are happy with the situation nowadays, but the referendum being real and fair? No way.

        • Ricky Miller

          Well, you don’t have to buy it. The opinions that mattered were in the Crimean Assembly, who was elected in the last Ukrainian election prior to 2014. They met in chambers during these extraordinary events, even though a Ukrainian mob, bused in from elsewhere, tried to prevent them from meeting. The Assembly recognized that Crimeans returning from a pro-government rally in Kiev were forcibly stopped on the road, assaulted by a Maidan gang, and eight of them killed. The Assembly charged that the coup violated the governance and autonomy agreement and they voted to ask Russia for security assistance. The Assembly voted to leave Ukraine and petition Russia for admission, and the Crimean Assembly voted to schedule the referendum. They voted to establish the date and made it soon because of the hostility of the coup plotters. Those are the opinions that mattered and why it’s legal. And it’s permanent because the people of both Russia and Crimea want it that way and because Russia has the muscle to tell people to go jump in a lake.

        • Z1

          To my knowledge the UN defines a state able to apply for membership as an entity with 1) power 2) controlling a territory. Once there is a coup you have a power without a territory. The state ceases to exist. Ukraine ceased to exist after the coup. Till the new power, i.e. coup instigator, asserts control over the territory. Which it never did in Crimea – that’s my understanding of international law.

    • Ricky Miller

      I beg to differ, sir. This is settled Russian Federation Law. Now if this were some East Timor like issue involving a far weaker country, you’d enjoy your point. But Russia? The fact is that Crimea was headed to independence and a rejoin with Russia in the early 1990’s. One weekend, Ukrainian militia and paramilitary muscle showed up in Crimea, removed the authorities and through the West got Yeltsin to accept it. The terms were that the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea would enjoy full citizenship rights, safety, travel to Russia, and Russia would be able to lease naval and other military installations. It was a bad deal, considering that Crimea had been part of Russia for centuries. Russia fought the Crimean war for it. And ousted the Reich. Statues of Catherine the Great abound there, not some Ukrainian Duke. The deal with Russia allowing the 1950’s rip of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine by Soviet fiat that Russia accepted and the people of Crimea accepted at the end of the Cold War, was broken by Ukraine when the legal and lawfully elected Kiev government was overthrown in a coup in 2014. Crimeans, now disenfranchised and under some threat concerning both their autonomy, language rights and even physical safety, voted to rejoin Russia. This was certified in Russian Federation law. It’s about as legal and permanent as any situation could be, especially in a world where the UN Charter is regularly violated and the rights of many states dismissed on a whim. And the bottom line is that Russia has the muscle to make it permanent, as the transfer of a fourth battalion to Crimea by the end of next month demonstrates.

      • Ricky Miller

        A fourth S-400 battalion, btw. And the U.S. de facto recognizes Russia’s claim. A U.S. Navy flight came close to Crimea yesterday, like they do every week. But stayed at closest approach some 18.29 miles outside Russia’s de facto controlled Crimean waters, not challenging the twelve mile limit. Unlike the South China Sea FON missions which fly and sail within the twelve mile limit of claimed Chinese waters, The U.S. has been careful to navigate outside Russian controlled waters and airspace around Crimea. That is operational acceptance of reality.

      • Barba_Papa

        In the case of international law whatever gets decided by national law means jack shit. I can declare my neighbor’s bedroom to be part of my house, and I can even occupy it, unless the government recognizes it the police will just come to evict me. In international law there is no world police, but unless recognized by international law Russia can declare that the sun revolves around the Earth, it still doesn’t make it so. By international law Crimea is still part of the Ukraine, until the international community no longer recognizes this to be the case. Or until Russia makes Ukraine sign an agreement.

        Countries not forcing their will upon the international community and international law is a good thing. If only that same argument and thought would be applied to the US and its vassals…..

        • Ricky Miller

          I agree with you in principle but not as a matter of eye opened reality. International Law has ceased to exist in any form other than a neo-colonial construct. It creates hoops for some to jump through this way and others don’t have to fit through at all. It’s Western led, MSM propaganda cheered on Global governance by High School in crowd. East Timor and Kosovo can be physically separated from Indonesia and Serbia based on the same standards as Crimea, or South Ossetia, or Catlonia for that matter and it’s made legal in International “Law” based on who the West likes or dislikes. It’s Law for everyone except the NATO and neo-NATO states who have infiltrated nearly every corner of UN and other institutions. It’s legal in name only and is created and used as a blunt instrument by the strong against the weak. Mitigating the construct while working for it’s actual fair application is what Russia has been doing.

          • Barba_Papa

            East Timor was conquered by Indonesia though after Portugal withdrew in 1975. It’s not like Kosovo where NATO basically cut off a part of Serbia and declared it formally to be an independent state. But this cookie cutter do as I say, not as I do approach by the West is why I said that it should also apply to the US and its vassals. Otherwise its, as you say, a construct by which the West does whatever the fuck it wants using international law as a law buffet to pick and choose whenever it needs a casus belli to go to war.

          • Ricky Miller

            Sure. But my point is that East Timor was a recognized part of Indonesia until a media darling campaign in the West made it a cause celeb. Diplomatic and economic threats were brought to bear in order to respect the wishes of the East Timor population to not be a part of Indonesia. It wasn’t International Law that allowed for the changing of the map but an International order that rationalizes decisions and impositions based on who is “in” and who is “out.” That’s not an International Law worthy of respect.

          • Z1

            To my knowledge the UN defines a state (able to apply for membership) as an entity with 1) power 2) controlling a territory. Once there is a coup you have a power without a territory. The state ceases to exist. Ukraine ceased to exist after the coup. Till the new power, i.e. coup instigator, asserts control over the territory. Which it never did in Crimea – that’s my understanding of international law. So Crimea joining Russia is absolutely legal under international law.

          • Sinbad2

            Actually it was the decision by Indonesian President Habibie to allow a referendum on independence that led to change. The discovery of gas promoted western interest in having a small weak nation to deal with, regarding the exploitation of the only resource East Timor has.

            You have to go back a few years and understand that East Timor ended up as part of Indonesia, because it suited the USA. The real prize was West Papua, the US got unlimited free mining rights in West Papua, in exchange for promoting that all Dutch colonies in the region be given to Indonesia.

          • Sinbad2

            “East Timor was conquered by Indonesia though after Portugal withdrew in 1975.”
            No that’s not right.
            Portugal withdrew from WEST Timor in the late 1940’s.
            East Timor was a Dutch colony, and the UN(US) gave the Dutch colonies to Indonesia in 1963. The US had been working on it since 1959.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Temporary_Executive_Authority

        • slayern2

          G.W. Bush: “International law? I better call my lawyer; he didn’t bring that up to me.”

        • Sinbad2

          Yes the US did exactly the same sort of thing with China.
          China didn’t really exist until Nixon ate humble pie to prevent an American economic collapse. Before Nixon the US believed that Taiwan was the one and only China.
          That sort of belief, that empires don’t need reality they can create their own, is an interesting concept?

    • gustavo

      Wrong my friend. Israel took that land, made an ethnic cleaning, and imposed aparthi system to Palestine people. Crimea people voted to be annexed to Russia federation, people is gotten big economical benefit, and people are liven under the same Russia rights. If you are not able to see the difference, sorry. International recognition really means USA-UK recognition…..who care.

    • Sinbad2

      Unilateral annexation does not make Texas American
      Unilateral annexation does not make California American
      Unilateral annexation does not make Arizona American.
      Unilateral annexation does not make New Mexico American

      • Z1

        Plz add up Hawai to your list.

  • Yankee Doodle

    Excellent article and summary. Thanks.

    Easy to see why NATO want to get into that sea (which is not a 6ft deep paddling pool as some fools seem to think it is, even when they can clearly see tankers, cargo ships, and corvettes sailing on it, and there are shipping channels over 10m deep throughout, LOL).

    Putting a NATO (British) military signals and EW ship in there was the goal (flying a Ukranian flag and having the British Officers and SBS all wearing Ukrainian uniforms), then after that come the big 4000 and 5000T shallow draft and littoral warships with Aegis and missile tubes loaded with NATO nukes.

    I am now wondering if the ‘nuke in tug’ story was real or a deliberate cover for the permanent closure of the Kerch Bridge / Crimea Bridge to all armed Ukranian vessels?

    True or false, the Russians won either way and from this day forth no warships flying NATO or Ukranian flags will be geting near that bridge again, and likely all ‘tugs’ and cargo ships will be boarded or scanned in some way, whilst being covered by the newly moved BAL coastal defence system, before they get within a mile of that bridge.

    Another shot in the foot for NATO…………………..