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Russia’s claims to Ukrainian warship “Donbas” in Kerch Strait pure psy-op, maritime expert says

On 9 December, the Russian FSB accused the ship of the Ukrainian Navy “Donbas” of presenting a threat to maritime safety and demanded it change its course. Photo: Wikipedia
Russia’s claims to Ukrainian warship “Donbas” in Kerch Strait pure psy-op, maritime expert says
On 9 December, Russia caused an international stir by claiming that a Ukrainian Navy ship was undermining maritime security by passing through the Kerch Strait to the Azov Sea (which since 2003 is an “internal sea” of Russia and Ukraine, meaning that any ship of both countries can freely pass at any time), and threatening to open fire on the Ukrainian ship. The Ukrainian ship, as usual, responded by saying it has full rights to these waters and continued as usual. These incidents happen on a daily basis and had gone unreported until 9 December. A military expert explains why Russia’s messaging is a psy-ops.

On the evening of 9 December, the Russian FSB announced that the ship of the Ukrainian Navy “Donbas” is moving towards the Kerch Strait, ignoring Russian coast guard vessels’ signals, and allegedly poses a threat to maritime safety. Russia has demanded it change course. This was reported by Russia’s state news agencies Interfax and Tass, citing the FSB’s Public Relations Center. The agency reported later that the ship changed course and sailed away from the Kerch Strait.

Ukrainian military rebuked the accusation, claiming that “Donbas”  performed tasks in Ukraine’s territorial waters and did not enter “sensitive zones.”. The US embassy was also quick to respond, underscoring that “Donbas” has every right to sail in Ukrainian waters.

The news came after Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, announced that Russia is ready to suppress Ukraine’s “provocations” aiming to regain control over Russia’s puppet republics in eastern Ukraine by force. It is part of Russia’s growing narrative of accusations attempting to paint neighboring Ukraine as the aggressor while saber-rattling on its eastern border.

This was underlined by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Riga on 1 December. Blinken said that the same Russian methods were seen back in 2014 when it invaded Ukraine’s territory.

“Then, as now, they significantly increased combat forces near the border. Then, as now, they intensified disinformation to paint Ukraine as the aggressor to justify pre-planned military action. We’ve seen that tactic again in just the past 24 hours,” he said, referring to Russia’s military buildup.

Andriy Klymenko, a maritime expert and editor-in-chief of BlackSeaNews, a Ukrainian resource that inter alia monitors sanctions violations in the Black Sea, maintains that Russia’s recent accusations are nothing more than a psy-op. He laid out what happened on the air of Nastoyashcheye Vremya, a joint RFE/RL & Voice of America project.

Since spring 2014, the  Kerch Strait, the only sea passage to the Azov Sea, has been occupied by Russia. After the illegal construction of the Kerch Strait Bridge in early 2018, Russia had consolidated its control: since May of that year, it kept illegally detaining and inspecting ships passing between the Black and Azov seas, creating great losses to Ukrainian commercial sea deliveries to the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk on the Azov coast.

The detentions were illegal since the Azov Sea, according to a 2003 agreement, is an inland sea of two states, according to which civil and military vessels under the flags of Ukraine and Russia can pass through the Kerch strait and go to their ports.

To solve the problem, in September 2018, two Ukrainian military ships, one of which is the search and rescue vessel A500 “Donbas” that Russia two days ago accused of posing a threat to maritime safety, broke through the blockade and headed to the Azov Sea to found a new military base in the city of Berdiansk.

Since then, Ukrainian Navy ships have escorted Ukrainian commercial vessels heading to their Azov ports. Because of this, Russia stopped detaining them, Klymenko writes.

So, on 9 December 2021, at approximately around 21:00 – 21:30 (Kyiv time) the Russian missile boat of the Black Sea Fleet “Shuya” (board number 962), which was transferred to the Sea of Azov to strengthen the already considerable group of ships and boats of the Coast Guard of the Russian Federation, threatened the Ukrainian ship “Donbas” with the use of weapons if it does not change course.

“This is not the first time Ukrainian sailors have heard such threats, it is not the first time they have responded in the same way, it is not the first time they have ignored them,” Klymenko wrote.

“Shuya,” the Russian missile boat that threatened to open fire on Ukraine’s “Donbas”

At the same time, the Coast Guard of Ukraine sent a special open radio broadcast to the Russian Coast Guard ship “Kite” (board number 373), which was at sea with the requirement to inform “Shuya” about the legal status of the Azov Sea, which is since 2003 an “inland sea of two states,” and that Shuya’s threat of opening fire is illegal.

After that, the Ukrainian ship “Donbas” continued is course and then returned to its base.

“Such incidents have been nothing new for a long time — usually, nobody informs anybody about any of them. That is, the prompt inclusion of Russia’s leading news agencies in this ‘game’ is nothing more than a psy-ops, [which] shapes the attitudes — both in Russia and abroad against the backdrop of well-known events,” Klymenko sums up.

Or, speaking otherwise, they contributed to the formation of the illusion of the alleged military “threat” that Ukraine poses at a time when the world is worried about Russia’s possible invasion of Ukraine.

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