Thu, Sep 27, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Russia’s ‘blockade’ of Sea of Azov ports angers Kiev

AFP, MARIUPOL, Ukraine

Seagulls whirled over the docks of Ukraine’s port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov as huge cranes that once used to unload ships’ cargoes stood idle.

The uncharacteristic quiet was the product of rising tensions in the small sea, the waters of which Russia and Ukraine agreed to share more than a decade ago, but is now the latest theater in the bitter conflict between the two nations.

Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 means ships must pass through a narrow strait bordered by Russian-controlled territory on both sides, while Kremlin-backed rebel regions of eastern Ukraine are uncomfortably close to Mariupol.

In a growing crisis, Kiev and the West accuse Russia of deliberately blocking ships from entering the sea.

“The whole time I’ve worked here, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Sergiy Kostyrko, a foreman who has worked at the Mariupol docks for 23 years. “Ships have become very rare visitors to our port.”

Ukraine has criticized what it sees as a deliberate move by Moscow to block the Kerch Strait, the only shipping route into the Azov Sea, where Ukraine’s commercial ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk are crucial gateways for its metallurgy industry exports.

Kiev has said that Russia could even launch an attack on Mariupol.

Russia is trying to block Ukraine’s ports on the Sea of Azov “to escalate tensions and, it cannot be ruled out, to carry out a military operation [including] attacks on Mariupol,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in July.

In a sign of the conflict’s growing scale, the US has condemned Russia for impeding maritime transit as part of a campaign “to undermine and destabilize Ukraine.”

“We call on Russia to cease its harassment of international shipping in the Sea of Azov,” the US Department of State said in a statement late last month.

The EU’s delegation to Ukraine earlier this month said that Russia “has increasingly and deliberately hindered and delayed the passage of vessels, including vessels from EU member states.”

Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova this week said that “Russia’s actions in checking ships are aimed solely at security.”

“It is precisely Kiev’s actions, those of its uncontrollable radicals, that force Russia to strengthen security measures,” she said.

The problems started upon Russia’s completion this spring of a bridge over the Kerch Strait connecting its southern mainland to Crimea.

The link spanning 19km was one of Moscow’s mega projects personally endorsed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who opened it in May at the wheel of a truck.

The bridge’s 35m arches are too low for some ships to pass under and there are also restrictions on length.

In addition, ships heading under the bridge face lengthy checks by Russian maritime border guards, causing additional financial losses for ports and shipping companies.

“The check takes three to four hours, but waiting for the inspectors takes up to five days,” Mariupol port director Oleksandr Oliynyk said.

Previously “the ships would be stopped for maybe 10 hours,” he added.

The result for Ukraine is a significant drop in shipping traffic and subsequent economic losses.

Shipping companies lose US$5,000 to US$15,000 with each day of delay for a cargo in the Kerch Strait, Oliynyk said.

“At some point, the ship’s owner will say: ‘That’s it, I’m not interested,’” he said.

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