Staunton, July 9 – Kyiv would like to see the Crimean ports of Yevpatoria, Kerch, Feodosia, Yalta and Sevastopol closed to international shipping to put pressure on Moscow to end its illegal occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula. The International Maritime Organization has not done that, but its declarations have nonetheless imposed real costs on Russia.
Like the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) did with regard to airfields, the IMO has followed the United Nations and declared that the Russian occupation of these facilities is illegal and that any carrier who uses them does so at its own risk. That means any that do so may not be covered by their insurance for any accidents.
Russian commentators have sought to downplay this both by suggesting that it is a Ukrainian government action rather than the response of the international community to Moscow’s aggression and by arguing that many carriers and especially Russian ones are ready to replace any carriers, air or sea, that refuse to use the airfields or ports of Crimea.
But even as such commentators do so, their statements show that the ICAO and IMO decisions are having an impact and that if they continue for several years, such sanctions will likely have an effect on Moscow’s plans for the development of the peninsula. Indeed, the latter may be more serious than the former.
Nikita Maslennikov, a researcher at the Moscow Institute of Contemporary Development, notes that “the position of Kyiv is that its national sovereignty extends to both the ports and the airspace of Crimea.” The UN agrees, and the ICAO and IMO are implementing it in their respective areas.
What the two international common carrier organizations have said to airlines and shipping companies is that “in the existing legal situation, you are assuming the risks on your own.” That means that in the event of an accident, the insurers on whom both rely would not be required to compensate them.
That does not mean that there is a blockade, he continues, but “of course, these risks are taken into consideration.” One result is that now, “only Russian air carriers are flying into Crimea.” The same outcome, Maslennikov suggests, is likely to be true soon in maritime shipping as well.
That will have some impact on Moscow’s development plans, he concedes, although because such programs are long-term, it is as yet unclear how much. If Moscow can secure a negotiated settlement, then the impact could be quite limited. But if not, he implies, it could be quite large.
Consequently, he argues, Moscow must seek to carry out infrastructure projects while simultaneously “conducting necessary talks” in order to resolve the international legal situation around the peninsula.
Moscow should have anticipated this problem, he continues, but at the moment of annexation, no one “devoted attention” to the problem. He suggests that in his view, the key international legal issues connected with Crimea “will be resolved,” although this will take “more than a year or two.” But eventually, it will happen.
In any case, Maslennikov says, “the threat of a serious sea blockade” of Crimea’s ports “does not exist” because Russian companies can fill in the gaps.
Bogdan Bezpalko, deputy director of the Center for Ukrainian and Belarusian Studies at Moscow State University, takes a somewhat different position. He argues that “the main function of Crimea is military and political.” If Bulgarian and Turkish ships don’t service the peninsula’s ports, that won’t affect Russia’s trade balance because they can use Anapa and Novorossiisk instead.
Indeed, he suggests, what the IMO and ICAO are doing may work to Russia’s advantage at least in the short term. Before the annexation, there were only three to four flights into Simferopol each day. Now, there are as many as 150, and they are Russian carriers.
“If harsher sanctions are introduced with regard to air carriers,” he says, Moscow “will specially create two or three air companies which can service Crimea exclusively.” That could also be a model for handling the IMO’s declaration about the ports of the peninsula.
And he suggests that Ukraine is unlikely to push things too far because its main ports are not in Crimea but in Ilichevsk and in Odessa oblast. Andrey Suzdaltsev of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics agrees and says that Russia should not worry too much about these “purely propagandistic” actions.
But the very fact that they are being discussed shows that at least some in Moscow are worried, given that air carriers and shippers are understandably reluctant to act without insurance coverage and that building new planes or ships is not something the Russian government or anyone else can do overnight.