Mariupol, Ukraine (PortSEurope) December 4, 2018 – Russia has partially unblocked access to Ukrainian ports on the Azov Sea, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister Volodymyr Omelyan was quoted as saying, 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 export.
“Vessels make their way to the entrance and exit through the Kerch strait toward Ukrainian ports – the movement is partially restored,” Omelyan was quoted as saying. Two Ukrainian cargo vessels were allowed to pass the strait this weekend.
Omelyan said that Ukrainian authorities were preparing contingency plans to transfer cargo from the Azov Sea to Ukraine’s larger Black Sea ports, like Odessa. According to Russia, the interruptions to maritime traffic in and out of the Azov Sea was due to bad weather. But Ukraine says boats heading to or from Russian ports are moving freely.
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.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on December 1 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. Her possible successor as the leader of her Christian Democratic Union party Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, secretary-general of the Christian Democrats, urged the European Union and the United States to consider barring Russian vessels coming from the Azov Sea from entering their ports amid Moscow’s naval standoff with Kiev.
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%.
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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