Mariupol, Ukraine (PortSEurope) December 8, 2018 – Ukraine said it will soon send navy ships through the Kerch Strait, connecting Azov and Black Seas, where Russia seized three Ukrainian navy vessels on November 25 and temporarily blocking access of Ukrainian ships to Ukrainian ports.
Ukrainian defence minister Stepan Poltorak said on December 7 that the naval ships will sail soon through the Kerch Strait, “otherwise Russia will fully occupy the Sea of Azov”. In the meantime Russia’s security services claimed that Ukraine plans to sabotage its newly constructed, 19.3 km, €3 billion ($3.41 billion) bridge across the Kerch Strait, connecting Crimea to mainland Russia.
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.
Russia has partially unblocked access to Ukrainian ports on the Azov Sea, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister Volodymyr Omelyan was quoted as saying on December 4, which ended a one-week blockade of Mariupol and Berdyansk, disrupting the operations of the ports which are a gateway for some 6% of Ukrainian exports.
But more than 140 ships were stuck on both sides of the Kerch Strait (about 100 trying to enter Azov Sea) on December 7 due to checks and delays created by the Russian side, the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service (DPSU) said. It accused Russia creating difficulties for the Ukrainian ships trying to enter the Azov Sea from the Black Sea.
Russia opened fire against and seized three small Ukrainian navy ships and their crews on November 25 near the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014, over what Moscow said was their illegal entry into Russian waters – a charge Ukraine denies.
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.
The Azov Sea is a strategic gate for Ukraine’s industrial and agricultural east, connecting the country’s mines, fields and factories to the world. The Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and nearby Berdyansk on the sea’s western shore export coal, metals, grain, and fertilizer.
Ukraine claims that trade to its Azov Sea ports has been reduced by 30% since Russia began creating problems for its ships this spring. Exports from Mariupol have fallen 6% and imports by 9% so far in 2018. Exports from Berdyansk fell by 12.3%. According to not independently verified calculations of Ukrainian economist and journalist Igor Guzhva, Ukraine’s GDP will decline by 12.7% if Russia permanently blocks the Mariupol and Berdyansk ports.
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