MARIUPOL, Ukraine — The din of Ukraine’s long, grinding conflict with Russia still rattles windows in the port city of Mariupol, a reminder of a front line frozen for three years just a few miles outside town.
Most worrying for the city’s and Ukraine’s future these days, however, is not the muffled noise of sporadic fighting on the outskirts, but the alarming quiet that has gripped Mariupol’s sprawling port after Russia seized three small Ukrainian naval vessels and 24 sailors last month and began restricting shipping in local waters.
“This is not a joke. It is not a Hollywood movie. It is a very serious situation,” Volodymyr Omelyan, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, said during a recent visit to the becalmed port on the Sea of Azov, empty of large ships except for a nearly-50-year-old military vessel that serves as the command ship of Ukraine’s puny navy.
Mariupol is now at the center of a combustible struggle between Russia and the West over the future of Ukraine — and over rules that govern the world’s seas. Some believe that Russia, through its Nov. 25 confrontation with the Ukrainian Navy and its subsequent restrictions on shipping, is trying to rewrite the rules in the Sea of Azov, just as China has done in the South China Sea.
Traffic picked up last week ahead of a Dec. 8 briefing in Moscow by Russian border forces, at which they denied blocking maritime traffic. The easing of what officials in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, describe as an on-again, off-again naval blockade allowed four cargo ships to enter the Sea of Azov and to dock at Mariupol, a port with 18 berths.
One of them, a Lebanese ship, waited 12 days at sea before being allowed by Russia to move into the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait, under a new Russian bridge to Crimea.
Ukraine’s border service reported on Monday that, after easing up on restrictions, Russia is again severely disrupting sea traffic heading to and from Mariupol and the nearby Ukrainian port of Berdyansk under the bridge to Crimea. It said that more than 100 vessels were waiting for Russian permission to pass through the Kerch Strait, a previously little-known waterway that has now joined the Strait of Hormuz as one of the world’s most closely watched choke points.
But a report issued by Andrii Klymenko, the head of an independent research group in Kiev that monitors maritime traffic, suggested that the Ukrainian border service had inflated the number of stranded ships.
The problem, he said, is no longer so much that Russia is blocking passage, but that shipowners, unnerved by previous aggression by Russia and alarm over its future intentions, have stopped sending vessels to Mariupol. He predicted that in coming days, the city’s port would be mostly empty “because of the fears of shipowners.”