The Russian government has reportedly issued notices warning mariners and aviators to avoid significant portions of the northern end of the Black Sea, as well as the adjacent Sea of Azov, next week ostensibly due to upcoming live-fire naval exercises. The obvious concern is that this could amount to a de facto blockade of Ukraine's southern coastlines, which in turn might be part of preparations for new large-scale Russian military intervention into that country.
Earlier today, Andrii Klymenko, a member of the Ukraine-based Institute of Strategic Black Sea Studies think tank and editor-in-chief of the independent BlackSeaNews website, posted a map on social media showing areas of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov covered by these notices. He said that the alerts will be in effect starting this coming Sunday, February 13, through the following Saturday, February 19.
"We don't want any panic, but this is very similar to preparing for something like the 'sea blockade' of Ukrainian ports. About which we've been warning for 2 years," Klymenko wrote in an associated post on Facebook. "This has to be stopped. At the highest international level."
It is important to note that these are warnings and it is unclear if the Russian Navy will seek to actively intercept or otherwise block foreign ships from entering these exercise areas. Regardless, the stated intention to conduct live-fire missile and gunnery training would present risks to anyone choosing to do so.
Klymenko's map shows that any access to the Sea of Azov, which has already largely come under Russian control, despite formal agreements on shared use of the body of water between Moscow and Kyiv, would have to go through one of these warning areas once the NOTAMs come into effect. Access to much of Ukraine's Black Sea coast will also be impacted. Only a narrow channel to the west, reflecting the 12-mile wide boundary of Ukraine's territorial waters, will offer an unrestricted opening for maritime traffic to key Ukrainian ports. The notices say that another large section of the Black Sea southwest of Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, will also be in use for the live-fire drills, further hampering maritime freedom of movement in the region.
A smaller section along Crimea's western shores is also covered by a NOTAM. Though it's unclear exactly what Russia has planned for its ostensible exercises in any of these areas, that zone to the west of Crimea would seem well suited to hosting an amphibious landing drill. Three Russian Navy landing ships entered the Black Sea yesterday, officially to take in forthcoming naval maneuvers, while another trio began their transit into the region from the Mediterranean Sea earlier today.
There had been discussed ever since these six amphibious warfare ships left the Baltic Sea in January that they could be headed to the Black Sea, where they would be in a good position to support any future operations in Ukraine. The Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet already has a significant number of landing ships and smaller landing craft, along with other warships and submarines, too.
The Kremlin's current intentions regarding Ukraine, including whether or not it is actively planning to launch a new invasion of its neighbor, have been persistently murky. The two countries have been engaged in an active, but relatively low-level conflict over areas of eastern Ukraine's Donbas region that have been occupied by Russian-supported "separatists" since 2014-2015.
More recently, there has been a massive Russian military buildup along the borders with Ukraine, and now in Belarus, which is still ongoing and is all ostensibly related to upcoming large-scale exercises. At the same time, there have been persistent fears that this is merely a cover to get personnel and assets into position for an incursion into Ukraine.
In this current geopolitical context, Klymenko is certainly not wrong to point out potential concerns in the Kremlin's plans for the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov next week. It is worth remembering that Russia made similar maritime moves in the region last year, including extensive NOTAMs that drew international criticism, during a previous buildup of forces around Ukraine that ultimately did not lead up to an invasion. However, "this has not happened in the last 8 years," Klymenko said on Facebook in regards to the new Russian NOTAMs.
The NOTAMs are scheduled to be lifted right around the end of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, which some experts and observers have suggested could be a factor in the Kremlin's planning for a major operation against Ukraine. There has been a belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not want to distract from that event, something that could be detrimental to his relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The Russian and Chinese governments just recently put out a significant joint statement that, among other things, criticized NATO and reaffirmed that the two countries share a number of key geopolitical objectives.
Even if the Kremlin does not launch a new major military operation against Ukraine in the near term, these NOTAMs underscore the current balance of power between Russia and Ukraine in the region at present, which is not in Kyiv's favor. They are also a signal to other countries, especially members of NATO that are deploying naval and other forces to the region, among other areas of Europe, in hopes, in part, of deterring any potential Russian aggression. The warning notices present an obstacle to the alliance's ability to make its own shows of force in the Black Sea, which is already a relatively confined body of water that presents significant risks for western naval forces operating there. Beyond the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet, and the reinforcements it has recently received, the Russian military has a heavily fortified presence now on the Crimean Peninsula that includes ground-based anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile batteries, as well as combat aircraft, among other assets.
Debates continue to rage between governments, as well as experts and observers, about what Putin might be thinking about doing in regards to the situation in Ukraine, as well as the various actions NATO has taken in response to the continuing military buildup. French President Emmanuel Macron met with his Russian counterpart just this week, an example of ongoing diplomatic efforts to deescalate the situation. In talking with Macron, Putin reportedly agreed to refrain from any new "military initiatives” aimed at Ukraine and committed to withdrawing forces from Belarus following exercises there.
What course or courses of action the Kremlin will actually decide to pursue, and how the NOTAMs in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov factor into those decisions, remain to be seen.
Contact the author: [email protected]