Country Risk

Kerch Strait incident increases likelihood of escalatory incidents along Russia-Ukraine border, especially in Sea of Azov region

26 November 2018

Policemen stand in front of the Russian Embassy in Kiev late on 25 November 2018, while smoke from a flare thrown by protesters is seen during a rally, following an incident in the Black Sea off Moscow-annexed Crimea. Source: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images #1065220594

Key Points

  • The Kerch Strait incident was most probably a deliberate Russian escalation aimed at demonstrating Russian military dominance in the Sea of Azov region.
  • While the primary objective of the Russian escalation is likely to be to intimidate Ukraine, particularly in relation to its aspiration for NATO and EU accession, both sides' forward military deployment, particularly, of aviation and naval forces, increases likelihood of further similar incidents and of miscalculation, especially in the Sea of Azov area.
  • Violent protests in Ukraine against Russian diplomatic assets and officials in Ukraine would serve as an indicator of increasing pressure on the Ukrainian government to take further military action militarily but would also provide a pretext for Russia, if it was looking for one, to escalate against Ukraine militarily.


On 25 November 2018, in the Kerch Strait, the Russian navy prevented three small Ukrainian naval vessels from passing through from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov and temporarily closed the strait to all marine traffic.

On the morning of 25 November 2018, three small Ukrainian naval vessels attempted to cross the Kerch Strait en route from Odessa on the Black Sea to Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov. The group included two small armoured artillery boats and one tugboat. On approaching the Kerch Strait, the Ukrainian vessels were surrounded by Russian naval patrol boats, one of which rammed into the Ukrainian tugboat, causing some damage. Russia simultaneously suspended all navigation through the strait, by placing a Russian-flagged commercial cargo vessel under the span of the Kerch Strait Bridge at the location of the fairway channel, physically blocking it.

After the Ukrainian vessels retreated into international waters, Russian naval boats fired on them and seized them in a location about 23 km off Crimea's coast, injuring six Ukrainian sailors and abducting 23.

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