Since February 24, the Russian offensive has partly targeted southern Ukraine and the territories to the east, along the Sea of Azov. If Russia seizes this strip of land, it would become master of the Sea of Azov, a major victory for Moscow.
In Ukraine, the “lightning war” hoped for by Vladimir Putin did not take place. For the past month, Russian and Ukrainian troops have been clashing in several areas: the north, east and south of Ukraine. To the south and east, Russia attacks territories bordering the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
This offensive extends over a vast strip of land from Donbass, partly controlled since 2014 by pro-Russian separatists, to the gates of Mykolaiv, via Melitopol, Berdiansk and the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014. Moscow seems to want to continue on this axis: the Russian army announced on Friday March 25 that it would concentrate its efforts on eastern Ukraine to allow the “liberation of Donbass”.
Control of southeastern Ukraine from the Donbass would have significant advantages for Russia, both land and sea. “If the Russians take the entire northern shore of the Sea of Azov, it would then become a Russian inland sea”, explains Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics (University of Paris-VII) and researcher associated with the Thomas More Institute, contacted by France 24.
But the Russian army is not there yet. The port city of Mariupol, heavily bombed, was still resisting on Friday, despite a catastrophic humanitarian situation. Further west, on the Black Sea side, Kherson is the only major city conquered entirely by Russian forces. And the Russians “are still trying to encircle Mykolaiv with the ambition of advancing west, towards Odessa”, according to the British Ministry of Defence.
Asphyxiate Ukraine from the south
The conquest of this entire land area would then have significant consequences for Ukraine. Because Mariupol, Berdiansk and especially Odessa are major Ukrainian ports, through which Ukraine exports iron and steel products and wheat in particular. For the researcher, “there is, on the one hand, the war strictly speaking, with armed confrontations and, on the other hand, a naval blockade, economic asphyxiation and the desire to deprive Ukraine of all access maritime”.
The Sea of Azov has already been de facto under Russian control since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Since then, Moscow has controlled both sides of the Kerch Strait, which gives access to the Black Sea. The eastern shore of the strait corresponds to the Russian Taman Peninsula, and the western shore is located in Crimea. Control of the Sea of Azov was then strengthened in 2018 with the creation, by Russia, of a bridge connecting the two peninsulas. “From that time, Russia considered that the Sea of Azov was a Russian sea”, specifies the author of the book “The World seen from Moscow – Geopolitics of Russia and post-Soviet Eurasia” (PUF , 2020).
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Indeed, “this Kerch bridge prevented a number of Ukrainian ships from passing. Ukrainian ports overlooking the Black Sea”, told France 24 Louis Pétiniaud, researcher at the Geode research center and specialist in Ukraine and Russia.
After the bridge was built, the Russian Navy fired on Ukrainian military ships and seized three of them in November 2018. It accused the ships of entering Crimean territorial waters, including the annexation is not recognized by Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine had nevertheless concluded an agreement in December 2003. It provided for the Sea of Azov and the Strait of Kerch to belong to the “internal waters of Ukraine and Russia” and the “free” circulation in the strait for ships of both countries, including military ones. But the annexation of Crimea reshuffled the cards.
“Vladimir Putin wants to reconstitute New Russia”
“I don’t think the Sea of Azov in itself is of interest to Russia. But it is a gateway to the Black Sea [où transite une partie importante du trafic maritime mondial]”, asserts Louis Pétiniaud. If Mariupol falls into the hands of the Russians and they “control the northern shore of the Sea of Azov, then they would control the whole Sea of Azov and this would be a further step towards the control of the northern shores of the Black Sea”, adds Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier.
But gaining greater access to the Black Sea is not Moscow’s only goal. “For Russia, the Black Sea commands access to the Mediterranean, passing through the Turkish straits of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. Then, from the Mediterranean, there is the possibility of projecting into the Red Sea, in the Indian Ocean, in the Atlantic Ocean. The Black Sea gives access to what is called in Russia ‘the world ocean'”, explains the researcher.
Russia has already been trying for several years to expand its influence in the warm seas. In 2015, Moscow launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea to destroy targets in Syria. Another example in recent weeks: Russia and Sudan have relaunched a Russian military base project, along the Red Sea, in Port Sudan.
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This strategy echoes that of Empress Catherine II, who had, at the end of the 18thand century, founded the port of Sevastopol to offer privileged access to the warm seas. “She had conquered the northern part of the Black Sea and she had given the name of ‘New Russia’ to this space. Today, Vladimir Putin wants to reconstitute this ‘New Russia’, that is to say say a land area that starts from Donbass, which extends to Crimea and which would go at least to Moldova”, says Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier.
But Russia is not alone in the Black Sea. It shares it with Georgia and three NATO member countries, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania. Turkey, whose navy can stand up to the Russians, has recently sought to curb Russian ardor in the Black Sea. On February 28, it prohibited the passage of its straits to all warships, whether they come from countries “bordering or not on the Black Sea”. If Russia felt directly targeted, this decision also applies to NATO, which seeks to strengthen its positions in this area.
The Alliance decided on Thursday to send reinforcements to Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, which would bring to eight the number of multinational battalions deployed on NATO’s eastern flank. Washington and its allies have also begun to discuss the delivery of anti-ship missiles to Ukraine. Weapons that could help the country loosen the Russian grip around the Black Sea ports.