Russia tightens its grip on the Sea of ​​Azov, the “gateway” to the Black Sea

Since February 24, the Russian offensive has partially targeted southern Ukraine and territories to the east, along the Sea of ​​Azov. If Russia seizes this strip of land, it will become the master of the Sea of ​​Azov, which is a great victory for Moscow.

In Ukraine, the “blitzkrieg” that Vladimir Putin counted on did not take place. Over the past month, Russian and Ukrainian forces have clashed in several directions: in the north, east and south of Ukraine. From the south and east, Russia is attacking the territories bordering the Black and Azov Seas.

This offensive spans a vast swath of land from the Donbass, partly controlled by pro-Russian separatists since 2014, to the gates of Nikolaev, through Melitopol, Berdyansk and the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014. Moscow seems to want to continue this axis: on Friday, March 25, the Russian army announced that it would focus its efforts in eastern Ukraine to ensure the “liberation of Donbass.”

The offensive of Russian troops in Ukraine as of March 24, 20:00 (Paris time) © Graphic studio France 24

Control of southeastern Ukraine from the Donbass would have significant advantages for Russia both on land and at sea. “If the Russians take over the entire northern shore of the Sea of ​​Azov, it will then become a Russian inland sea,” explains Jean-Sylvestre Montgrenier, researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics (University Paris-VII) and researcher associated with the Thomas More Institute contacted by France 24 .

But there is no Russian army yet. The heavily bombed port city of Mariupol was still resisting on Friday despite the catastrophic humanitarian situation. Further west, on the Black Sea coast, Kherson is the only major city completely captured by Russian troops. According to the British Ministry of Defence, the Russians “are still trying to encircle Nikolaev with the aim of moving west towards Odessa.”

Strangle Ukraine from the south

The conquest of all this territory would have serious consequences for Ukraine. Because Mariupol, Berdyansk and especially Odessa are major Ukrainian ports through which Ukraine exports iron and steel products and, in particular, wheat. For the researcher, “there is, on the one hand, a war, strictly speaking, with armed clashes, and on the other hand, a naval blockade, economic strangulation and the desire to deprive Ukraine of any access to the sea.”

The Sea of ​​Azov has already been de facto under Russian control since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Since then, Moscow has controlled both sides of the Kerch Strait, which gives access to the Black Sea. The eastern shore of the strait corresponds to the Russian Taman Peninsula, and the western shore is located in the Crimea. Then in 2018, control over the Sea of ​​Azov was strengthened by the construction of a bridge by Russia connecting the two peninsulas. “From that time on, Russia considered the Sea of ​​Azov to be a Russian sea,” clarifies the author of the book “The World Seen from Moscow – The Geopolitics of Russia and Post-Soviet Eurasia” (PPU, 2020).

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Indeed, “this Kerch bridge prevented the passage of a number of Ukrainian ships. Ukrainian ports overlooking the Black Sea,” Louis Petinio, a researcher at the Geode Research Center and specialist in Ukraine and Russia, told France 24.

After the bridge was completed, the Russian Navy fired on Ukrainian warships and captured three of them in November 2018. He accused these vessels of entering the territorial waters of Crimea, including the unrecognized annexation by Ukraine.

Russia and Ukraine nevertheless concluded an agreement in December 2003. It provided for the belonging of the Sea of ​​Azov and the Kerch Strait to the “internal waters of Ukraine and Russia” and “free” passage in the strait for ships of both countries, including military ones. But the annexation of Crimea shuffled the cards.

“Vladimir Putin wants to recreate Novorossiya”

“I do not think that the Sea of ​​Azov in itself is of interest to Russia. But this is the gate to the Black Sea [où transite une partie importante du trafic maritime mondial]”, claims Louis Petinio. If Mariupol falls into the hands of the Russians and they “control the northern coast of the Sea of ​​​​Azov, then they will control the entire Sea of ​​\u200b\u200bAzov, and this will be a further step towards control over the northern shores of the Black Sea,” adds Jean-Sylvestre Montgrenier.

But gaining greater access to the Black Sea is not Moscow’s only goal. “For Russia, the Black Sea has access to the Mediterranean Sea, passing through the Turkish straits of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. Then from the Mediterranean Sea it is possible to project into the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean. The Black Sea gives access to what is called in Russia” oceans,” the researcher explains.

Russia has been trying to expand its influence in warm seas for several years now. In 2015, Moscow launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea to destroy targets in Syria. Another example of recent weeks: Russia and Sudan have restarted the project of a Russian military base on the Red Sea in Port Sudan.

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This strategy echoes the strategy of Empress Catherine II, who at the end of the 18th well as century, founded the port of Sevastopol to provide privileged access to the warm seas. “She conquered the northern part of the Black Sea and gave this space the name New Russia. Today, Vladimir Putin wants to recreate this “New Russia”, that is, a piece of land that starts from the Donbass, which extends to the Crimea and which will reach at least Moldova,” says Jean-Sylvestre Montgrenier.

But Russia is not alone in the Black Sea. It shares it with Georgia and three NATO member countries, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania. Turkey, whose navy can stand up to the Russians, has recently been trying to curb Russian fervor in the Black Sea. On February 28, he banned the passage through his straits to all warships, regardless of whether they come from countries “bordering the Black Sea or not bordering it.” If Russia felt like a direct target, this decision also applies to NATO, which seeks to strengthen its position in this area.

On Thursday, the Alliance decided to send reinforcements to Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, bringing the number of multinational battalions deployed to NATO’s eastern flank to eight. Washington and its allies have also begun discussing the supply of anti-ship missiles to Ukraine. A weapon that could help the country loosen the Russian grip on the Black Sea ports.

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