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The rising Russia-Ukraine tensions at Kerch Strait, and how US overflight affects them

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The Western media is almost shouting hoarse for the US government to support, intervene and arm Ukraine, but Donald Trump seems to be unusually calm.

New Delhi: The Kerch Strait is back at the centre of Russia’s belligerence against neighbour Ukraine, and the United States Air Force has carried out an extraordinary overflight over Ukrainian air space to reassure its ally and dissuade the Russians from any unwarranted action.

Vinayak Bhat/ThePrint
Vinayak Bhat/ThePrint

The Americans’ clear-cut message, delivered under the Open Skies Treaty, has elicited a subdued reaction from Russia.

Last month, Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels, and took 24 sailors on board into custody. Then, the Kerch Strait Bridge, also known as the Crimean Bridge, was blocked by Russian Coast Guard vessels and a grounded tanker.

The Ukrainian ships seized were two Project 58155 Gyurza-M class Berdyansk #P175, Nikopol #P176 armoured artillery boats and a Tugboat Yany Kipu #A947. The tugboat Yany Kipu sustained damages at midship starboard and stern both port and starboard sides.

On the blockade, Ukraine’s ministry of foreign affairs claimed that Russian Navy warships “unlawfully applied force on Ukrainian ships in the Azov sea”, and said it will engage full international legal and diplomatic response.

Also read: China’s second aircraft carrier is well on its way, far earlier than expected

Crimea annexation

The Kerch Strait is an important transit point between Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Russia and Ukraine have contested the Kerch Strait many times — the last time was in 2003, over the Tuzla Island which Russia wanted for construction of a rail-road bridge.

Vinayak Bhat/ThePrint
Vinayak Bhat/ThePrint

The bitterness dissipated with an agreement that the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea would be considered international waters.

The situation obviously changed for everyone, including the international community, after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

Russia has since deployed its land, sea and air forces in Crimea and taken over the region completely. Recently, it had decided to deploy S-400 batteries to augment the air defence in the area.

Construction of Kerch Strait Bridge

A bridge on the Kerch Strait was first conceived by Hitler in 1943 for assistance at Kuban Bridgehead during the Caucasian offensive. Only an aerial cableway was built, which could barely sustain the defence of 17th Army. Later, in 1944, the Soviets constructed a rail bridge which got washed away after three months of operation due to ice floes. Reconstruction wasn’t attempted until 2015.

Vinayak Bhat/ThePrint
Vinayak Bhat/ThePrint

A new bridge, connecting the Kerch Peninsula of Crimea with the Taman Peninsula of Krasnodar Krai, was opened to public in May this year.

The double railway line bridge is yet to be completed.

The bridge was seen as a liability by Western experts, but Russia has proved it to be an asset in maintaining the economy of Crimea, and now by blocking sea traffic underneath it.

Similarity to Donuzlov

The Russian forces during annexation of Crimea had tried to get the Ukrainian navy to surrender at Novoozerne, but in vain.

The Russian navy adopted a very unique tactic of gaining the surrender by running aground and later sinking its own ship at Donuzlav. Later, the ship was retrieved with help of cranes and tugs.

Similar to the Donuzlav blocking, this time, Russia blocked the sea route under the Kerch Strait Bridge by anchoring a grounded tanker on 25 November.

Russia announced the closure of the sea route on 28 November due to a prevailing storm. Now, the blockade has been removed.

Present status

Satellite imagery from 25 November clearly indicates that the Ukrainian ships were not only in the territorial waters of Crimea, but also Russia.

Vinayak Bhat/ThePrint
Vinayak Bhat/ThePrint

The Ukrainian foreign ministry, on the other hand, is taking refuge in the old 2003 Tuzla Island agreement for claiming innocent passage through international waters.

The Western media is almost shouting hoarse for the US government to support, intervene and arm Ukraine, but somehow, Donald Trump seems to have been unusually calm and not reacted to the situation.

Large mechanised formation moved near border

Satellite imagery over the last five months suggests that beginning in August, a very large mechanised formation, with T-64 and T-62 tanks and BMP infantry fighting vehicles, has moved to Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, near the 91st Central Reserve Base for Mechanised Equipment, Military Unit 48670.

Vinayak Bhat/ThePrint
Vinayak Bhat/ThePrint

The formation, with 290 tanks and 150 IFVs, has been amassed slowly but steadily on the south-western edge of the town, barely 15 km from the border with Ukraine.

Vinayak Bhat/ThePrint
Vinayak Bhat/ThePrint

This is the largest move of Russian armour since 2014 when its forces annexed Crimea.

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