Atlantic Council fellow says US should send ships to Azov Sea (illegally) after Kerch standoff

Atlantic Council fellow says US should send ships to Azov Sea (illegally) after Kerch standoff
A senior fellow at the pro-NATO Atlantic Council has said the US should send naval ships into the Sea of Azov to guarantee it stays open after a skirmish between Russian and Ukrainian ships. Only problem is, that would be illegal.

Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist who lives in Washington D.C. and works for the avidly anti-Russia think tank, implored the US and NATO to “react sharply” to what he called “the illegal Russian blockade of the international Sea of Azov.”

Aslund’s suggestion came after Russia opened fire on and seized three Ukrainian navy boats on Sunday, accusing them of breaching the Russian maritime border.

The Ukranian vessels were sailing between two Ukrainian ports: from Odessa in the Black Sea to Mariupol in the Azov Sea. The only waterway that connects these is the Kerch Strait between Crimea and mainland Russia. Kiev says it notified Moscow in advance that its navy ships would be sailing through the area. Moscow denies that it was given warning.

While both Russia and Ukraine have freedom of navigation in the Kerch Strait under a 2003 treaty, there are detailed technical rules on how vessels should pass through the narrow, complex waterway. All traffic in the area is controlled by the Crimean sea port of Kerch, and every ship should contact the facility, report her route and destination, and receive permission to sail through the Strait.

Unfortunately for the Swedish economist, though he tweets with all the authority of someone who was on the ships in question himself, it seems he is lacking in this basic knowledge about the legality of his proposal.

Luckily, chief foreign affairs correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Yaroslav Trofimov, stepped in to help out, tweeting that aside from the “practical risks” which might arise from US ships rushing into the kerfuffle, it would also be “illegal without Russian permission.”

Trofimov cited the 2003 treaty between Russia and Ukraine which declared the Azov Sea to be “internal waters” and which only guarantees freedom of navigation for Russian and Ukrainian military vessels.

There is a practical problem with the proposal as well: the Azov Sea is simply too shallow. US Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers have a draft of 9.3 meters (30 feet), while the *average* depth of the Azov Sea is only 7 meters (23 feet), with the deepest point being twice that.

Aslund, who frequently raises eyebrows among more knowledgeable Russia experts and is known for his dramatic hot takes on Twitter, also compared the incident to Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland — so the complexities of reality are unlikely to deter him.

He also claimed that a quiet response to the incident from US officials meant that President Donald Trump must have “strictly ordered” US officials not to speak about it.

The Atlantic Council fellow also found himself in a heated spat with multiple Moscow-based journalists and correspondents last week after he scolded a Washington Post reporter for daring to write an article suggesting that some Ukrainians harbored positive feelings toward Vladimir Lenin.

Journalists from the Washington Post, Financial Times and the Guardian were unimpressed that Aslund appeared to be implying that Moscow-based journalists are unable to write authoritatively about Ukraine and that they should refrain from criticizing the country, lest it offend him or his group of friends.

Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev also waded into the debate to remind Aslund that debate around post-Soviet identity in Ukraine is alive and well, regardless of how he personally feels.

Since the Kerch Strait incident, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has imposed martial law in the country — a move which could allow him to call off scheduled elections and remain in power. Moscow has accused Kiev of provoking the entire incident to win sympathies in the West and to help Poroshenko remain in office.

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