Russia’s Game in the Sea of Azov
Since its declaration of independence in 1991, Kiev has identified the situation in Crimea as a national security vulnerability in the wake of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s presence in Sevastopol.
Negotiations with Moscow, completed in 1997, laid the groundwork for a treaty that would resolve the Soviet legacy, with Russia receiving 81.7% of the fleet while Ukraine only 18.3%, or 87 vessels and one submarine.
The annexation of the Crimean Peninsula caused geopolitical tensions not only in the Black Sea, but also in the Sea of Azov, 70% of which was controlled by Ukraine until 2014. In fact, Kiev had total control of the Kerch Strait, which is why Moscow had to pay taxes for entering the Sea of Azov.
Thus, known as the Maeotic Lake in Antiquity, the Sea of Azov was in a latent security situation until the end of the Cold War, so that, as of 1991, its Status and that of Crimea would be at the center of Russian-Ukrainian diplomatic disputes that had to be tackled by a bilateral agreement signed in 2003, which delimited the waters of Azov as Russian-Ukrainian territorial waters.
Obviously, the agreement was not respected by Moscow after the Russians annexed Crimea and took control of the Kerch Strait, following a long series of actions by which Russia violated the rules of international law, both by unilaterally closing the strait, arresting Ukrainian ships and their personnel in 2018 or the harassment of commercial vessels going to Ukrainian ports in Azov. However, Moscow does not see a problem in these actions, although Ukraine is simply deprived of its rights as a riparian state. In this context, the city of Mariupol plays an extremely important role. Located in the vicinity of the separatist regions, the port provides a significant part of the need for raw materials and food for the entire Eastern Ukraine. However, ships arriving at the port are stopped by the Russian authorities through checks that delay their arrival for weeks or even months. Along with other subversive actions, including the information war, Russia wants to increase social tensions in Eastern Ukraine to the detriment of Kiev.
Moreover, by excluding Ukraine from its own maritime areas, Russia is now exploiting resources such as fishing or oil and natural gas reserves, to the detriment of international law. Later, the construction of the Crimean Bridge between Russia and the peninsula, a 3.7 billion dollars project despite Russian economic problems, raises not only problems regarding the capacity of ships that should reach Mariupol, but also many questions on the protection of the Black Sea environment.
As the bridge is not enough to satisfy Russia's regional interests by controlling the Sea of Azov, Moscow manages to not only supply the needs of troops stationed in Crimea, being able to project its power beyond the Black Sea. For example, the port of Sevastopol played an extremely important role in Russia's military campaign in support of Bashar al Assad, both by transporting food and ammunition to the Damascus regime and by moving military ships to Tartus, ships that supported the Russian military offensive.
Last but not least, by capturing the Sea of Azov, Russia managed to fully control the Volga-Don Canal, used by the US itself during the period 2000-2003 in order to supply Azerbaijan, becoming the only broker to control the sea route between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.
Moscow is putting constant pressure on Ukraine, beyond over 2,000 km of common border. The Russian Troops Task Force, which is a threat to the Odessa region, one of Ukraine's few economic connections to international markets, remains in Transnistria. In Belarus, beyond some differences with Moscow, Lukashenko is willing to support Moscow's interests in Kiev. Lukashenko himself, wanting to divert attention from internal events, said that militants who are coming to Belarus to orchestrate protests are trained in Ukraine, thus showing Minsk's willingness to rally to the Russian narrative.
Throughout this picture, the Black Sea-Crimea-Azov Sea triad remains the main threat to Ukraine along with the separatist movements in the Donbas, which is why, in the short and medium term, a much stronger NATO response is needed but also the support of the international community for the regulation of the Sea of Azov on the basis of the United Nations Convention.