Many scenes from the Putin-hosted Sea of Azov encounters remind us of the crises that Russian efforts have caused in the Baltic Sea region in the past. In 1990, Russia’s annexation of Georgia’s breakaway territory of South Ossetia and Abkhazia renewed tensions in the region. Earlier this year, the rapid escalation of a public crisis in Russia’s former Soviet territory of North Ossetia, resulting in the deaths of hundreds, contributed to Western skepticism of Moscow’s intentions in Ukraine.
These former Soviet peninsula and separatist regions are not new to Russia’s territorial ambitions. Russia has maintained a military presence in the Baltic Sea area since the Soviet period. For example, the USSR actively supported a civil war in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia and former Soviet republics’ territorial disputes. Prior to Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008, Tbilisi had repeatedly asked the world community to help it in its own efforts to resolve the conflict.
Since the 2008 war, Putin has turned his attention back to neighboring Ukrainian territories. While the Kremlin insists it aims to “de-escalate” the crisis with Ukraine, Ukraine has responded by demanding that Russian troops’ military presence in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine be rescinded.
Putin reaffirmed Russia’s interest in maintaining sovereignty over the sea in his remarks on the occasion of the Moscow international economic forum in October 2016, two months after his seizure of Crimea.
“Russia is going to be absolutely faithful to our duty to the Sea of Azov, and we are going to use the possibility of our participation in managing the region in order to advance the development of the Sea of Azov,” he said at the forum.
Russia maintained that until 2014, it controlled and administered all the territory of the Azov Sea region, which includes Russia’s Black Sea fleet’s Azov harbor, and the strategically important Manas Airport. Following the withdrawal of other naval forces from Crimea, Russia cut ties with the Azov Sea port of Sevastopol and eventually broke off ties with the port of Sevastopol and the city of Mariupol, as well as seven other Crimean cities, to ensure that these are subject to its jurisdiction.
“Russia expects that the situation will improve quickly, however on the contrary, we fear that the occupation of Crimea will escalate and that the country will remain in a permanent state of military confrontation with Ukraine,” Leonid Mamchur, the Moscow Institute of Globalization and Social Change Director, told the Moscow daily Moskovsky Komsomolets on Jan. 31.
Moscow has taken some steps to increase control over the vast Sea of Azov, including starting construction of Russia’s first liquefied natural gas export terminal at Novorossiysk in the Sea of Azov in 2015. Although Putin has said that Russia’s ships will continue to seek permission from Ukraine to use ports on the Sea of Azov, Russia continued to push for greater control over the territory. In December 2016, Russia responded to EU sanctions with a ban on using the Ukrainian territory of Dnipropetrovsk for military purposes or for conducting military exercises without approval from Moscow. Russia simultaneously introduced a ban on using Ukrainian territory for sport activities.
A report published by the World Bank, based on data provided by the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, found that the flow of refugees from the separatist regions to Russia significantly increased after the war in Ukraine began in April 2014. Most of the country’s residents fleeing the fighting were displaced within Ukraine, while the remainder were fleeing to Russia.
Ukraine has struggled to restore peace and stability to the region. For years, the region has been plagued by fragility, which is reflected in the number of military incidents and the build-up of new infrastructure in Crimea, consistent with an aggressive military strategy in its Kaliningrad Oblast. Although Ukrainians repeatedly pressed the Kremlin for military withdrawal from the region, Russia’s pressure and intimidating tactics seem to have largely worked.
According to the International Crisis Group, Russia’s influence over the Azov region “is deeper than ever.” After years of military escalation and the annexation of Crimea, Putin’s Russia is beginning to experience a difficult transition, but tensions in the area do not seem to be subsiding anytime soon.