Could Russian irregulars capture Zmiinyi Island and blockade Ukraine?
Russia is trying to seize still more of Ukraine, but this time at sea. The current object of Russian aggression is the Odeske natural gas field, located in the Black Sea about 100 km East of the Ukrainian coastline in Odesa Oblast and about 120 km offshore of Russian-occupied Crimea. However, it is connected via pipeline to Crimea, so Russia is insisting that it is now Russian. TASS bluntly stated “The deposits on the Black Sea shelf became Russian after Crimea had reunited with Russia…” It’s possible that this opens the way to a naval blockade of Ukraine.
On December 14th Russia hijacked two drilling rigs located in Ukrainian territorial waters at the Odesa gas field and towed them to Crimea. According to the Ukrainian state border service, Russia is preparing to begin drilling in Ukraine’s maritime economic zone with the stolen drilling rigs. The Service also reported that Russia sent another rig to replace the two hijacked rigs.
Greed is a sufficient motive for this latest Russian move, but there may also be a military logic at work here. Russian propaganda outlets are reiterating the words of the General director of Chernomorneftegaz Igor Shabanov that Russian gas rigs in the Ukrainian maritime zone need “protection” from “terrorism” or Ukrainian naval vessels. There was even an incident earlier this week when a Russian warship and a Russian coast guard ship forced a “vessel flying the Turkish flag to change the (sic) course in the direction safe for the transport convoy.” (TASS) Russia has already used the threat of force to make a vessel change course in Ukrainian waters.
A recent article (in Ukrainian) by the Ukrainian journalist Oleksandr Piddubnyy bluntly asserts that Russia has begun a naval blockade of Ukraine. He points out that the distance between the Odesa gas field and the Western coast of the Black Sea is well within the range of modern naval weapons. Russian naval forces could prevent deliveries of South African ships carrying critical supplies of thermal coal for the winter. The important Ukrainian port of Odesa would be cut off. This would be a major escalation of the war. Piddubnyy’s scenario needs to be taken very seriously. However, there may be ways for Russia to use “separatist” proxies and have its naval blockade while maintaining deniability, just as they have managed to do in other parts of Ukraine.
Oleksandr Piddubnyy mentions tiny “Zmiinyi Island” in his article. This speck of Ukrainian territory is part of Odesa Oblast and sits about midway between the Odeske natural gas field and the coast of Odesa Oblast (and the Romanian-Ukrainian border.) The island has a small population of about 100. The island used to host a Soviet base, but it was demilitarized as part of the 1997 Treaty of Cooperation between Ukraine and Romania.
Imagine if an intrepid group of Odesan “freedom fighters” (actually, Russian naval troops without insignia) stormed the island and declared that it was the territory of the “Odesan People’s Republic.” Even just a corner of Odesan territory under “separatist” (Russian) occupation could be critically important politically and diplomatically, and perhaps spur Russia to start another “Minsk Process” to wield as a diplomatic weapon against Ukraine in Odesa as they have in Donbas.
The Russian fleet could ward off any Ukrainian attempt to re-capture the island and the embattled residents of the island could get “humanitarian convoys” of boats from Russia to make sure they don’t run out of food or water (and also give Russia a consistent excuse to intercept ships that get too close to their convoys.) These residents (perhaps, bolstered with “civilian activists” embarking from Crimea) could serve as human shields. Perhaps some kind of anti-ship weapons system supposedly “captured” in Crimea or Donbas could be brought to the island to threaten any merchant ships or other vessels attempting to get past the blockade. Just a few hotheads from the “Odesa Fraternity/Odesa Underground” in motorboats with RPGs and kalashnikovs could cause havoc on the shipping lanes and drive insurance rates through the roof, discouraging any merchant ships from trying their luck.
A Russian course of action like this would be extremely risky… but no more risky than seizing Crimea or invading Eastern Ukraine. Putin is a gambler, and he has shown no signs of stopping.