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Reshaping the sea: Ukraine’s dismal future in Black Sea Basin


April 9, 2014

By Wlodzimierz Kaczynski

Fig. 2. Likely shape of the 200-mile EEZ after annex­a­tion of Crimea by the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion. |

Fig. 2. Likely shape of the 200-mile EEZ after annex­a­tion of Crimea by the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion. |

Fig. 1. Up-to-date con­fig­u­ra­tion of the bor­der lines between EEZ of adja­cent coastal states to the Black Sea. |

Fig. 1. Up-to-date con­fig­u­ra­tion of the bor­der lines between EEZ of adja­cent coastal states to the Black Sea. |

The consequences of Russia’s annexation of Crimea extend beyond concerns of land sovereignty and far into the waters of the Black Sea basin. Russia has started to re-shape its territorial sea and the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the northern Black Sea, putting Ukraine in an even more vulnerable state economically, militarily and politically.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), “the coastal state has the exclusive right to explore, exploit, protect and manage the living and non-living resources, the sea bottom and the water column as well as to build and use artificial islands, installations and other constructions”[1]. These provisions will certainly be used by Russia to establish new rules of the game in the Black Sea uses once coastal waters and continental shelf are partitioned around the Crimea Peninsula.

If Crimea had a straight coastal line, the determination of the sea border lines would not be complicated. Because it is a peninsula with a very complex coastal shape and  is adjacent to a closed sea area (the Azov Sea), the problem is more complex. Reshaping the national territorial sea jurisdiction could have dramatic outcomes[2].

The Crimean crisis radically affects the legal situation on the Azov Sea. Figures 1 and 2 demonstrate changes in the 200-mile EEZ between Ukraine and Russia after annexation of Crimea. Ukraine, which had full jurisdictional control over a majority of this area, will lose over half of its coastal line. Its access to the open Black Sea waters will be totally controlled by Russia. Few realize that this means cutting off a coastal line much longer than Bulgaria’s coasts in the Black Sea and with length equal to the entire marine border of Poland in the Baltic. Moreover, the access from Ukraine’s Azov Sea to the Black Sea will be fully controlled by Moscow as it plans to build the bridge that will cut the Kerch Strait.

Ukraine is set to lose an important piece of its economic and energy future: valuable undersea oil and gas fields that lie just offshore the Crimean peninsula. Exploiting those Black Sea fields could help reduce Ukraine’s dependence on Russian gas imports[3]. Also ports such as Mariupol, Berdyansk and smaller fishing villages will automatically be dependent on Russian officials, who will have discretionary control over fisheries, marine recreation, freedom of navigation, and other issues. It is worthwhile to recall that under relatively peaceful Polish-Russian relations, the same constraints exist in the Russian-controlled Pilava Strait connecting Poland’s Vistula Estuary with the Baltic Sea. As a result of Russian restrictions, Poles are planning construction of the ship canal through the Vistula Peninsula there[4].

The western part of the 200-mile EEZ of Ukraine will also remain under full Russian control. Ukrainian ships will be able to move freely from their own ports (such as Odessa or Mykolaiv) to the open Black Sea waters, but the area covered by the 200 mile EEZ of Ukraine will be enclosed by the new Russian 200 mile EEZ. Ukraine will have to cross through new Russian jurisdictional waters, where Russia will control any economic or research activity. The new shape of the 200-mile EEZ in this area might be a result of forceful pressures coming from Moscow reflecting Russian interests. As a result, remnants of Ukraine’s navy will also be controlled by the Russian Black Sea fleet. This fleet will grow in strength from year to year. Soon new navy ships will be added; these include a series of six missile frigates built in Russia under Project No. 1156M. The first of these — named “Admiral Grigorowicz” — was launched last week in the Kaliningrad Jantar Shipyard. The Admiralty Shipyard – St. Petersburg is also set to deliver six “Warszawianka” class submarines under Project 636.3 to the Sevastopol navy base. The fourth such submarine is currently under construction[5].

For Ukraine, the loss of Crimea represents a significant decline in its military potential. In the short term, it translates into almost complete elimination of the Ukrainian fleet. After the highly probable takeover of part of the Ukrainian Navy, the Russian Black Sea Fleet will outpace the Turkish fleet in the Black Sea, becoming a major military power in the basin[6]. A crisis-ridden Ukraine will not be able to counter these moves for a long time — a fact the Kremlin is counting on.

Wlodzimierz Kaczyksni is Associate Professor Emeritus in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at UW.


[1] United Nations Law of the Sea Convention. (1982).

[4] Kaczmarek L. M., Biegowski J., Skillandat J. B. (2010), Hydro- and lithodynamic aspects of constructing a navigable canal through the Vistula Spit — Part II. Technical Sciences, No. 13, pp. 64-79.

[6] Wilk, A. (March 19, 2014). “The military consequences of the annexation of Crimea.” The Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), Warsaw.