Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait – the narrow passage the separates the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea and strategically separates Ukraine’s occupied Crimea region from the Russian mainland – has raised serious questions about the trustworthiness of the country’s energy dealings with Europe, an official from the Bureau of Energy Resources said.
“Given Russia’s aggression in recent weeks, this is a good time to spotlight our diplomacy in this area. The energy security of our European partners and allies is a longstanding strategic priority of the United States. The United States strongly condemns recent Russian aggression in the Sea of Azov,” US Assistant Secretary for Energy Resources Frank Fannon said in a conference call with reporters on December 11.
“The Russian Federation’s closure of the Kerch Strait is a clear violation of international law,” he said. “More broadly, there’s a problem because you’re expecting to trust Russia to maintain and not cut off that gas,” Fannon said in reference to the gas transit to Europe via Ukraine under a contract that expires in 2019. If Russia successfully completes its Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline project to Germany, it will bypass Ukraine and effectively cripple its economy at a time when Kyiv is still having to whether the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.
“With the Kerch Strait closure and other incidents, it’s hard for anyone to rely on and trust (Moscow). And in fact, Mr. (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, when this idea was raised (of maintaining gas transit via Ukraine), said that, and I’m paraphrasing now, that ‘they would consider it only if it makes commercial sense to Russia’. We do not see them maintaining the gas transit volumes, however modest, as a real proposal,” Fannon said.
On November 25, Russian naval forces fired upon and detained two Ukrainian gunboats and one civilian tugboat before arresting the vessels’ 24 crew members as they passed through international waters in the Kerch Strait. The Russian Defence Ministry claims the Ukraine boats had passed too closely to the militarised water boundaries of Crimea, which Russia invaded and illegally annexed from Crimea in March 2014. The crew are currently being held in a detention facility inside the Russian Federation.
Both the EU and US have joined Ukraine in demanding that Russia release the crew immediately.
As a result of the incident, Russia also temporarily closed the Kerch Strait, thereby cutting off shipping traffic from the Azov to the Black Sea. Moscow closed the passage by parking a tanker below the recently opened bridge that links Crimea to mainland Russia, one that perfect fit between the bridge’s support pylons.
Members of the European Parliament, in a resolution on December 12, strongly condemned “Russia‘s recent aggression against Ukraine in the Kerch Strait.” The MEPs said they are seriously concerned that the tension may constitute a creeping attempt to annex Ukraine‘s sovereign rights to the Azov Sea.
“Russia, therefore, has to guarantee the freedom of navigation through the Kerch Strait and in the Sea of Azov,” they said.
The resolution called on the EU and its member states to introduce targeted sanctions against Russia if the Ukrainian servicemen are not released and if there is any further military escalation.
The Kremlin’s decision to halt international shipping traffic was a violation of the practice of freedom of navigation on the high seas and an overt breach of a December 2003 agreement between Putin and then- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.
The two had signed a framework agreement over the mutual use of the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait, which “historically” are joint territorial waters. They had also decided to create a consortium on the joint use of the Kerch Strait and the mutual recognition of the Azov Sea as an internal body of water where mercantile and non-commercial vessels flying the flag of either Russia or Ukraine would enjoy free passage through the Strait.
Last month’s Kerch incident and Putin’s violation of the 2003 treaty has sounded the alarm for those who worry about Europe’s reliance on Russian gas. Moscow has already seen its credibility badly damaged due to the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and its security services’ attempts to undermine the electoral processes of countries that it regards as adversaries.
This has led many observers to now openly asking whether Russia has fundamentally compromised its ability to claim the mantle of being a reliable business partner for the European Union.