Port of Mariupol. Photo: Mariupol Commercial Sea Port.

It is uncertain what it will mean for the Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov and shipping in the Black Sea. The Kremlin says that the closure of the Sea of Azov will not interfere with general shipping, but it is still uncertain what will happen. 

The recent military escalation between Ukraine and Russia also has consequences for shipping along with Crimea and inside the Sea of Azov. Recently, Russia closed the Kerch Strait, the entrance to the Sea of Azov, for foreign navies and foreign governments due to “training exercises” for around six months. According to UBN, that ban has now been extended to three more sections of the Black Sea near Crimea and will last until October. 

Companies fear that it will interfere with commercial shipping, while the Kremlin has said it will not “interfere with shipping through the Kerch Strait.”

“We commend Ukraine for its continued restraint in the face of Russian provocations and call on Russia to cease its harassment of vessels in the region and reverse its build-up of forces along Ukraine’s border and in occupied Crimea,” read a recent statement by the U.S.

Problems in Mariupol is nothing new

The recent escalation is making some worried about the future of commercial shipping in the Kerch Strait. However, it is not the first time that Mariupol is affected by the war and been hit with such uncertainties. Mariupol Port lost much of its business in 2014 as many companies and industries came under the control of the Russian-backed Separatists and no longer would be shipping through Mariupol Port.  

When Russia, years later, built a bridge from Crimea to mainland Russia, the Panamax class freight ships that used to account for over 40 percent of Mariupol’s trade could no longer sail through the Kerch Strait, according to DW. It became normal that ships leaving and entering the Kerch Strait had to wait for hours or weeks for permission. 

“Russian actions against vessels coming through the Kerch Strait to/from Mariupol and Berdyansk are tightened when Russia needs to put pressure on Ukraine and loosened when the Kremlin needs to show the West its “goodwill.” The Kerch “valve” will likely be used by Moscow together with other tools as a way to pressure Kyiv into resuming the supplies of Dnipro River water to Crimea,” concludes a researcher in the journal Jamestown

Too early to tell

What impact the recent closure of the Kerch Strait will have on commercial shipping is still unclear. However, today, Mariupol Port only operates at around 30 percent of what it did before the war, according to the Ukrainian news agency Unian. Still, there has been an increase in cargo handling in the last few years, despite the ongoing war. According to S&P Global, the recent escalation has not significantly impacted commodity markets. Still, there might be extra costs related to shipping out of ports in the Sea of Azov. 

“If there are disruptions to raw materials and steel being shipped from ports in the Sea of Azov, additional costs are expected for railway transit to Odesa, Mykolaiv, Yuzhny, and Chornomorsk,” S&P Global writes on their webpage

Yuri Balan, deputy director of Mariupol Port, told CS Monitor back in 2019 that the port is doing everything that it can to be ready, when the war will end. 

“Our view is that we need to use this crisis as an opportunity, to prepare ourselves for better times,” said Yuri Balan, pointing out that there are new investments, “Wars always end. When this one does, we will be ready.”