Tensions between Russia and Ukraine increased after a Russian naval ship rammed a Ukrainian tug and its navy captured two other Ukrainian gunboats.
Ukrainian tug Yani Kapu was struck by a Russian naval ship and two other vessels were seized in a battle off the coast of Crimea on 25 November.
This naval incident occurred as Yani Kapu, Berdyansk and Nikopol gunboats attempted to sail from the Black Sea port of Odessa to Mariupol in the Sea of Azov. Up to six Ukrainian crew members were injured and some were detained following the incident.
These vessels were attempting a voyage through the Kerch Strait between Russia and Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. This is the main entrance to the Sea of Azov and key Ukrainian and Russian ports in the region. Both the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov are shared territorial waters, according to a 2003-signed treaty between the governments in Moscow and Kiev.
This incident marks an escalation of tension between the two countries and is the first time these two navies have come into open conflict in recent years.
Russia accused the Ukrainian ships of illegally entering its waters, while Ukraine explained that Russian forces intercepted the ships as they found their route into the Kerch Strait blocked by a tanker moored below the Kerch bridge.
Ukraine’s Government said it had informed Russia in advance of its intention to sail its ships through the strait and Sea of Azov to Mariupol.
It accused Russia of blocking access to the Kerch Strait, and described the seizure of these ships as “another act of armed aggression”.
A blockade of the Sea of Azov would damage Ukraine's economy by impacting access to the key ports at Berdyansk and Mariupol, damaging exports and the nation’s economy. Ukraine estimates that around 25% of its export revenue comes from iron and steel products from Mariupol.
Russia has also started inspecting all vessels visiting or departing Ukrainian ports in the area, further hindering trade even if the Kerch Strait was unblocked.
Ukraine is investing in new tugs for another of its major import and export routes, which is not affected by Russia. Industrial and shipping group Nibulon is building a fleet of inland river tugs to escort convoys of non-self-propelled vessels along the Dnieper River and the Buh-Dnipro-Lyman Canal. The second of these tugs is scheduled for delivery in December.
The Dnieper River provides transportation access to key Ukraine cities, including Dnipro and Kiev. Nibulon has started building a US$19M transhipment terminal on the Dnieper River at Ternivka, near Zaporizhzhia and south of Dnipro to export agricultural products.