Mariupol, Ukraine (PortSEurope) December 1, 2018 – German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called on Russia to honour a 2003 treaty that sets out the conditions under which Ukrainian ships may enter the Sea of Azov and reach Ukrainian ports.
“All escalations must be avoided,” Merkel said after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
But her possible successor as the leader of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, secretary-general of the Christian Democrats, urged on December 1 the European Union (EU) and the United States (U.S.) to consider barring Russian vessels coming from the Azov Sea from entering their ports amid Moscow’s naval standoff with Kiev.
She suggested that a blockade should be implemented if it is proved that Russia was the aggressor after skirmishes in the Kerch Strait on November 25 which saw Russian forces block, ram and then fire on two small Ukrainian navy boats and a tugboat trying to access the shared Azov Sea and Mariupol port.
Merkel said Russia agreed to German suggestion that discussions about the dispute should continue at the advisor level in the four-way Normandy format (Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France) that has sought to ease tensions between Ukraine and Russia.
Since November 25, no Ukrainian ship has been allowed by Russia to enter the Azov Sea and sail to the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk via the Strait of Kerch – the only access to the small sea from the neighbouring Black Sea. Ukrainian ports Berdyansk and Mariupol in the Azov Sea are under blockade by Russia with ships being prevented from entering and leaving the ports, according to the Minister of Infrastructure of Ukraine Volodymyr Omelyan on November 29.
After incidents in 2003 Russia and Ukraine signed in the same year a treaty giving both countries the right to use the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait that connects it to the South with the Black Sea. Military vessels movement must be done with prior notification, as Ukraine claims it has done for the three detained ships.
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, it took over both sides of the Kerch Strait. So far, the blockade has had no major impact on the operations of Mariupol’s 18-dock port. The port was working with near-normal volumes on November 30, loading ships that were already in dock. But without a resolution to the blockade, workers say they will be forced to wind down activities within the next few days.
Parts of the neighbouring Ukrainian port of Berdyansk were already reported idle on November 29.
Mariupol port lost several key customers, especially coal mines, and a mainline railway when local territory fell to Russian-backed separatist forces during the 2014 war. As a result, the port is operating at half its capacity. Before the conflict the port handled exports of coal, metal, grain, clay. Now metal products from Mariupol’s three metal plants account for some 75% of its cargo.
Ukraine claims that trade to its Azov Sea ports has been reduced by 30% since Russia began creating problems for its ships. Exports from Mariupol have fallen 6% and imports by 9% so far in 2018. Exports from Berdyansk fell by 12.3%.
Mariupol port is located on the north-western coast of the Taganrog Bay. Its berthing line is 3.9 km long (22 berths), with depths down to 9.75 metres. The port is served by one port railway station and highways are adjacent to the port. The cargo turnover of Mariupol seaport in 2016 was 7.6 million tons, while the port’s capacity is 18.8 million tons per year.
Berdyansk is the second largest Ukrainian port in the Azov Sea, situated in the northeastern part of Berdyansk Bay and consists of the outer road, the inner road (harbour of Berdyansk) and the entrance canal.
It has nine berths with depth of 7 to 8.6 metres. Its main activities are transhipment of coal, coke, chemicals, grains, construction materials and light oil. The main berths №1–6 are situated is protected by a breakwater; berths № 7–9 are not protected.
Moscow said it does not restricting shipping to and from the Azov Sea, and that any possible problems were due to bad weather. News agency Interfax, which is close to the Kremlin, said that Russia is working on a new technical system to allow it to better track shipping around the peninsula in order to protect its maritime borders. NATO has urged Russia to release the three Ukrainian navy ships and their crews, but has stopped short of offering to deploy new forces in the area to deter Russia.
On November 25, Russia blocked the Kerch Strait with a merchant marine tanker placed under its newly constructed, 19.3 km, €3 billion bridge across the Kerch Strait, connecting Crimea to mainland Russia. Since then, the tanker was removed. Ukraine keeps protesting against the bridge which it considers as too low for large and high vessels to pass through.
A total of 23% of the ships that have been entering the Azov Sea will not able to do so anymore due to the bridge, while Mariupol port can lose up to 43% of its annual cargo traffic, the Ukrainian government said. It claims that after the construction of the bridge only ships with a length of up to 160 m and draft of up to 8 m will be able to enter the Azov Sea.
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