An audiotape released by Kyiv appears to back up their version of events. One former U.S. military commander says there’s no doubt.
Shortly after Russian forces seized three Ukranian warships and detained several of their crew in the Sea of Azov over the weekend, the Ukrainian General Staff posted what they call intercepted communications between the Russian sailors and their commanders ashore. In the recording, one sailor says that the attack was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ukrainian diplomats in the United States confirmed that the audio and accompanying YouTube video had come from the Ukraine government. A researcher from the open-source investigatory organization Bellingcat said that they knew of the existence of raw files that support the claim of the Ukranian government.
In it, one of the Russian sailors says Medvedev is “panicking,” adding, “We should assault them. We have to destroy them,” and “It seems that the President is in control of all of that shit.” The reference to Medvedev could either refer to Dmitry Medvedev, a Russian politician and close Putin ally, or more likely, Adm. Gennady Medvedev, the deputy head of the FSB Border Service.
The operators discuss the arrival of 10 men with “incredible physical skills” within the hour, which corresponds to the arrival of Russian Special Operations, or Spetsnaz, troops who boarded and seized the Ukrainian ships.
The Ukrainian government also released a statement outlining their version of events, claiming that their gunboats Berdyansk and Nikopol and harbor tug Yani Kapu were transiting from the Ukrainian port of Odessa to the Azov Sea port of Mariupol The statement said that Ukrainian officials had communicated all of this to Russian authorities “in keeping with international norms.”
They claim that “no response was provided.”
“According to information, small armored artillery boat ‘Berdyansk’ and ‘Yani Kapu’ harbour tug are seized and towed. ‘Nikopol’ boat is blocked and moves escorted by Russian forces. Six Ukrainian servicemen are injured,” they wrote in their statement provided to press.
Western observers were quick to condemn the moves by Russia. Kurt Volker, the U.S. State Department’s Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, tweeted, “Russia rams Ukrainian vessel peacefully traveling toward a Ukrainian port. Russia seizes ships and crew and then accuses Ukraine of provocation???”
Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, tweeted, “Canada condemns Russian aggression towards #Ukraine in the #KerchStrait. We call on #Russia to immediately de-escalate, release the captured vessels, and allow for freedom of passage. Canada is unwavering in its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg issued his own statement, in which he “expressed NATO’s full support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, including its full navigational rights in its territorial waters under international law.” NATO called for an “extraordinary meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission at Ambassadorial level in Brussels.”
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley further condemned Russia’s actions. “In the name of international peace and security, Russia must immediately cease its unlawful conduct and respect the navigational rights and freedoms of all states,” she tweeted.
The U.N. Security Council convened an emergency meeting at 11 a.m. on Monday to discuss the matter, but Russian diplomats ensured that no meaningful action would be taken.
In a brief press conference with reporters, Stoltenberg called the crisis a reminder of the war going on in Ukraine. “All allies have condemned Russia’s aggressive actions in Crimea and in Ukraine,” he said, adding that NATO will “not recognize Russia’s illegal, Russia’s ongoing militarization’ of the Azov Sea, which “poses further threats to Ukraine’s independence.”
Both Russia and Ukraine enjoy legal use of the Azov Sea, which joins the larger Black Sea via a narrow body called the Kerch Strait. But since August, Russia has been harassing Ukrainian boats attempting to use it, creating, in effect, a blockade.
Stoltenberg said that NATO has “increased its presence in the Black Sea region,” both on land and with enhanced air policing. He urged all parties to work toward a diplomatic solution.
Next week, he said, he will meet with Ukranian Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin and representatives from nearby Georgia on further steps.
What The Azov Sea Crisis Says About Russia’s Plans and What To Do About It
The Russian actions took the world by surprise. But Ben Hodges, the former three-star commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, says the move was simply the latest step in Russia’s efforts to win control over the Black Sea.
“Everybody should be clear this is an entirely predictable next step by Russia. They are clearly the aggressor here. Any attempts by anybody to establish equivalence would be wrong. That would, in effect, validate Russia’s claims to territorial waters around Crimea,” he said. “We need to recognize what Russia is doing in the Black Sea region, [which is] more important for them even than the Baltic.”
Russia bases its Black Sea fleet near the city of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed illegally in 2014.
Says Hodges, “Everything they do in the Middle East depends on their dominance in the Black Sea region” which includes Turkey and isn’t far from Syria. “What they are doing, in effect, is to draw an iron curtain across the Black Sea.”
But the West is limited in what it can do to deter Russia in the region, in large part because of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which prohibits countries that don’t border the sea from building a permanent naval presence there. “We have to come up a strategy within the confines of that convention,” says Hodges. “We have a lot of stuff in the Baltic region and in Poland but not as much yet in Romania and Bulgaria.”
Romania will be key to any such strategy. Hodges said the United States could help by accelerating the delivery of new Patriot missiles to Bucharest. The Romanian government first ordered the anti-missile weapons as part of a $3-billion-plus arms package in 2017, and added three more batteries in November. The U.S. also maintains a logistics base in Romania that could support additional troops as a deterrent, said Hodges.
Land-based weapons like armed Predator or Reaper drones could also help curb Russian military hostilities there, he said.
NATO forces already conduct air policing missions in the region. Hodges says that NATO should convert those to air defense missions, which would have different rules of engagement. That, he said, would “strengthen capability in the region.”
NATO and the West should figure out a strategy soon, he says. The tensions in the shallow Azov Sea may portend similar troubles in the larger Black Sea. The commercial importance of the region for Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, and Turkey is growing with the expected 2021 completion of Romania’s Anaklia large deepwater shipping port.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the "Medvedev" referred to in the recording was Russian politician Dmitry Medvedev. The deputy head of Russia's FSB Border Service also shares the last name "Medvedev." The recording does not specify which one is being referred to.