Russian escalation at the Kerch Strait ended in cannon fire and the capture of three Ukrainian military vessels, leaving at least six Ukrainian sailors wounded. This escalation was a continuation of increasing Russian aggression in the Sea of Azov and around the Kerch Strait, where Ukrainian shipping and maritime activity has been routinely harassed.
On November 25, 2018, two Ukrainian gunboats and an accompanying tug boat were denied entry into the Sea of Azov while attempting transfer from Odesa to Mariupol. The Russian Federation considers the Crimean peninsula its territory since it illegally annexed and occupied the peninsula in 2014. This stance led Russia to grow increasingly aggressive in the Sea of Azov, although it is considered internal waters of both countries following a 2003 agreement.
The Ukrainian Navy reported an unfolding altercation at the Kerch Strait between Ukrainian and Russian vessels. The incident reportedly unfolded seven in the morning Moscow time, in which a Ukrainian tugboat was rammed by a Russian coastguard vessel.
In imagery from Russian and Ukrainian vessels alike, the Russian coastguard vessel “Don” is seen ramming the bow of the Ukrainian tugboat after it cut in front of the Don upon being cut off by another Russian coastguard vessel.
According to intercepted radio communications between Russian vessels, this was one of two collisions with the Ukrainian tugboat in the Black Sea. The sequence of coordinates showed the tugboat moving in the direction of the Kerch Strait, but this could be attributable to the Russian coastguard’s apprehension of the boats. The map below shows the recorded coordinates for each attack, which were nine minutes apart, at 44.560, 36.308 and 44.566, 36.305, respectively.
The maritime melee did come at some cost to the Russian vessels when the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Border Service coastguard vessel “Izumrud” (pennant no. 354) sustained a gash in the mid-section of its superstructure, likely from another Russian ship. The height of the hole in the Izumrud meant that the damage could not have been inflicted by the much smaller Ukrainian vessels, but it could easily have been inflicted by the bow of one of the larger Russian ships. The damage was promptly covered by a white tarp, which failed to cover the afflicted area in its entirety.
In a move to close off the strait completely, a Russian cargo ship was placed under the main section of the Kerch bridge construction site. This was the only viable transit route through the strait since Russia connected Crimea to the Russian mainland with the bridge. Beyond connecting Crimea to Russia, the Kerch bridge also significantly limits the volume of sea traffic possible. Offering 33 meters of clearance, the bridge inflicts a 30 percent revenue loss for the port of Mariupol due to the inability of larger ships to transit the straits.
Simultaneously, Russia deployed military airborne assets in support of the FSB Border Service’s coastguard. In total, two Kamov Ka-52 “Alligator” (NATO reporting name Hokum B) attack helicopters and two Sukhoi Su-25 “Grach” (NATO reporting name Frogfoot) jets were spotted buzzing the site of the confrontation. The missile payloads of these aircraft make them suited to engage small watercraft like the Ukrainian gunboats.
Additionally, a Mil Mi-8 (NATO reporting name Hip) transport helicopter was spotted at a low hover nearby the incident close to the village of Zavitne (south of Kerch city, on the coast of the Black Sea), most likely unloading special forces in anticipation of a direct confrontation with the crews of the Ukrainian vessels. According to the Kerch.fm report, there was a about of four Mi-8 helicopters that landed near the village.
Ukraine allegedly dispatched fast attack craft from Berdyansk, but recalled them upon nearing the Kerch bridge, likely due to the overwhelming Russian military activity in the area.
Eventually, Russian coastguard vessels decided to board the Ukrainian vessels by force. Russian personnel opened fire, allegedly disabling the boats and injuring their crew. The day following the incident, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine released intercepted radio communications between the Russian coastguard vessels. These recordings could not be verified through the open source but appeared genuine.
The audio suggested that the Izumrud was the ship that opened fire on “Berdyansk,” a Ukrainian Gyurza-M class gunboat, but it was unclear under whose orders. The recordings also revealed that the ship commanders were in communication with Medvedev and one man on the radio contemplated that the orders came from the President. The Medvedev in question was most likely the deputy border service commander and head of the Russian coastguard Gennady Medvedev.
The radio communications also suggested that Russian special forces would join the coastguard to board the Ukrainian vessels. These forces were possibly connected to the aforementioned Mi-8 helicopters spotted near Zavitne. These recordings confirmed that the damage sustained by the Izumrud was the result of a collision with another Russian coastguard vessel.
Upon successfully boarding the Ukrainian ships, the Russian coastguard took the vessels and their crew into custody. The status of the crew is still unclear, but the Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation claimed that all crew was well, and that wounded crewmembers were treated for their injuries. Six of the total 24 captured crewmembers were reportedly injured. The three Ukrainian vessels were docked at a Russian coastguard facility on the Genoa breakwater.
Later imagery of the captured vessels showed that the damage sustained by the Berdyansk from Russian cannon fire was located on the superstructure of the vessel. Such damage would either be sustained if the Russian coast guard explicitly targeted the crew, or if extreme carelessness led to inaccurate shots. Commonly in situations like these, ships will target the waterline or engine area of the target in an effort to immobilize the combatant vessel. By targeting the cabin area of the Berdyansk, the lives of the Ukrainian sailors were put at an unnecessary risk.
The European Union (EU) quickly responded to the incident in support of Ukraine. The EU statement reaffirmed the illegality of the Russian annexation of Crimea, and with it the Kerch bridge, which it described as a breach of Ukrainian sovereignty. The statement went on to state that the EU expects Russia to restore the right of transit to Ukraine.
We expect Russia to restore freedom of passage at the Kerch strait and urge all to act with utmost restraint to de-escalate the situation immediately.
NATO also issued a statement reaffirming its commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty, while urging restraint from both sides.
The OSCE Special Representative Sajdik and Chief Monitor Apakan responded to the incident with calls for restraint, but the Parliamentary Assembly took a harsher tone. OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President George Tsereteli responded to the incident with calls for restraint and reiterated support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
The seizure of Ukrainian naval vessels and the blocking of traffic into the Kerch Strait by Russia represents an unacceptable escalation of tensions between two participating States of the OSCE.
Further steps that might lead to a military escalation must be avoided. Russia must avoid provocative acts, return the detained vessels to the Ukrainian authorities, and release any detainees in its custody.
The rapid escalation of the situation in the Kerch Strait was the culmination of slower, benign Russian activity in the region which mostly amounted to harassment of Ukrainian commercial vessels.
The readiness of Russia to overtly deploy lethal firepower to the area was an escalation of its regular conduct, typically showing more disguised behavior by attempting to covertly employ military force. Russia used this opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to its territorial claims over Crimea and its corresponding Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Simultaneously, this display of readiness to use force has tightened Russia’s grip on the Sea of Azov, demonstrating a trajectory towards complete control in the absence of significant pushback. The sea of Azov houses the only coastline in eastern Ukraine and would result in a significant economic impact if cut off.
Michael Sheldon is an Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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