Blocking of the Ukrainian commercial and military vessels by the Russian navy shows how aggression against another state can be exercised and escaped from the international sanctions. Thus, blocking of the entrance to the Kerch Strait for Ukrainian and international warships and state vessels was imposed from April 2021 to the end of October 2021. However, the restrictions were then extended for the period from 31 October to 15 November, unofficially due to the stay at sea of three US warships in the Black Sea.
Andriy Klymenko, an expert at the Institute of Black Sea Strategic Studies, told that more than that, the Russian Federation was impeding maritime transport links elsewhere in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea in every possible way. These restrictions have concerned important industrial and economic areas – the area where the Ukrainian offshore natural gas deposits are located on the sea shelf, which were seized at the beginning of the occupation of Crimea. Also the part of the Black Sea close to the main sea route between the Bosporus Strait and all Ukrainian Black Sea ports – Chernomorsk, the ports of Odessa, Mykolaev and Kherson. In this way it creates a permanent risk for all Ukrainian maritime traffic.
In late November the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation again sealed off the area where the Ukrainian offshore natural gas fields are located offshore, which had remained blocked in December.
On 8 December 2021, under the pretext of naval exercises with firing, the Russian Federation, in addition to the previous closed areas, closed all three areas of the Sea of Azov for one month directly bordering the Ukrainian coast and ports of the Sea of Azov – the Azov coast of the Genicheskiy district, Kherson region of Ukraine, which directly borders the occupied Crimea, the Azov coast of the city and port of Berdyansk, the Azov coast of the city and port of Mariupol, which directly borders the occupied coast of Novoazovsk district of Donetsk region and the Azov coast of the city and port of Mariupol (temporary occupied territories of Ukraine – TOTU).
Judging by these active and virtually unpunished actions, it can be argued that the Kremlin has demonstrated that in terms of closing off maritime areas under the pretext of military exercises, no boundaries exist for it.
The Azov and Black Sea waters remain one of the teensiest points, which can be compared with the line of demarcation with the TOTU. Thus in Ukrainian waters or those bordering them, there are constant provocations by the Russian Federation, blocking commercial ships and conducting exercises of land and sea operations by the Russian Armed Forces.
It should be noted that in November 2021 alone, the average duration of artificial detention by the Russian Federation of vessels at the entrance to the Kerch Strait from Mariupol and Berdyansk with export cargoes was 36.8 hours. In comparison, this figure was in average 29.6 hours in 2020 and 37.4 hours in 2019. In total, in the first 11 months of 2021, the average duration of delays for vessels sailing from the Ukrainian ports with export cargo was 39.4 hours per vessel.
Andriy Klimenko continues – the Armed forces of the Southern Military District of Russia (including the Black Sea Fleet) have conducted massive exercises in recent months. For example, there were 129 exercises in September 2021, 143 in October 2021 and 95 in November 2021. At the same time, it should be noted that contrary to the previous years, the Russian Armed Forces did not have their usual period of significantly reduced exercises at the beginning of the winter period. Another important aspect is that of the total number of 95 exercises reported in November 2021, 23% involved amphibious and sabotage operations on the territory of a simulated enemy by marines, Special Forces, sabotage groups supported by the aircraft.
Pavel Lysianskyy, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies and Security, believes that the Russian Armed Forces continue to actively prepare for the war. Therefore, it can be assumed that there will be an intensified blockade of the Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov, as well as obstacles to maritime traffic in the Black Sea on the way from the Ukrainian ports to the Bosporus – a de facto blockade of shipping to/from ports of Odessa, Mykolaiv and Kherson regions.
The permanent military exercises of the Russian Armed Forces can only be judged by data from 29-30 December. The following events took place at that time:
- The crew of the frigate Admiral Essen of the Russian Black Sea Fleet conducted a routine exercise with a Ka-27PL anti-submarine helicopter from the Black Sea Fleet Naval Aviation and Air Defence Force.
The helicopter performed flights from the deck of the ship to conduct aerial reconnaissance of targets, and also practised a search and tracking algorithm for an opposing submarine.
The crew of the frigate Admiral Essen, during helicopter flights, checked the coherence of all systems of the aviation complex and practised the actions of the vessel air gunners.
- The duty shift of the Volgograd garrison of the Southern Military District (SMD) responded to the attack by a group of suspected terrorists.
During the tactical and special exercise, the troops supported by a reinforcement group in Tiger armoured vehicles, blocked groups of “militants” who had attempted to enter the territory of formations and military units of the garrison.
- The small rocketships Uglich and Velikiy Ustyug of the Caspian Flotilla trained to put out a fire.
The crews of ships prevented the fire from spreading. Around 60 sailors took part in the training and modern fire-fighting equipment was used.
- The 58th general army started preparing for the qualifying stages of the Tank Biathlon competition on the training grounds in the Southern Military District.
Tank crews of the Southern Military District motorised rifle division have arrived at the firing range and have begun reconciling sights and bringing their weapons into normal combat.
- Soldiers of the Cossack Motor Rifle unit of the 49th Combined Army of the Southern Military District in Stavropol Territory overcame a psychological obstacle course.
More than 1,000 motorised riflemen practised tactical movement techniques under conditions of the conditional enemy fire. All obstacles were overcome using simulated explosions, idle fire, smoke, fire and sounds of combat.
- A shooting drill for recruits was held at the training ground of the 19th Motor Rifle Division of the Southern Military District.
More than 200 soldiers completed their first shooting missions in their service. Two training companies are training at the range.
The reservists are also getting involved. In the autumn of 2021, a territorial defence division was formed in the Rostov region, which is manned from the mobilisation human reserve, BARS (the country’s military army reserve).
The first training meeting with BARS units in the Air Defence Force was held from 23 September 2021. 23 training facilities were deployed to nine training ranges in the district, and 240 officers and NCOs were selected to lead the sessions for the training meeting with the reservists.
Andriy Lysiansky is sure – this means practising aggressive military action for occupation of a foreign territory. That is why the procedure for preparing to relocate aircraft to alternate and operational airfields was practised. No less important is that in November-December 2021, in order to ensure intensive exercises in winter conditions, 9 modern autonomous modular field camps 500 each for 500 servicemen and corresponding number of equipment were first installed in all 9 combined arms ranges in Southern Military District of Russia (Astrakhan, Volgograd and Rostov regions, Stavropol and Krasnodar territories, in North Ossetia and in the occupied Crimea).
Such field camps are designed for long marches with daily rest periods during combat coordination, in case of the need for rapid training of reserve troops, during the mobilisation deployment of armed forces. It is also a sign meaning the aggressive warfare training.
Over 4,700 major combat training exercises were conducted in the formations and military units of the Southern Military District of the Russian Federation in the academic year 2021. This included 1,800 tactical, tactical-special, command-staff and flying exercises with formations, military units and subunits of the armed forces.
Experts believe that such behaviour of Russia is a constant “probing of the ground” – how far it is possible to go in blocking ships and aggressive actions against Ukraine and not be sanctioned. Therefore, the possibility of accidental or deliberately provoked incidents with the use of weapons, which will become a pretext for military aggravation in the Sea of Azov, can be predicted in the future. It is possible that a rapid simultaneous blockade of all Ukrainian seaports, as well as the landing of maritime troops on the Ukrainian coast of the Sea of Azov from Genichesk to Mariupol will be performed.
On the other hand, the experience gained in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea can be transferred to other waters, including the Baltic region.