As Maxim Nosenko strides the decks of one of Ukraine’s moored naval gunships, frozen in a biting chill that rips through the port of Mariupol, he’s left to contemplate Kiev’s unlikely response to the apparent bid by Moscow to annex the sea behind him: inactivity.
Ukraine’s navy here has been told to stay in port, at a heightened state of readiness, in a bid to not further aggravate the Russian military who appear to have free rein in the Sea of Azov, all the way down to the Kerch Strait.
“Our superiors stopped our moving and patrolling because of the situation”, said Nosenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian navy. “Right now we are on a state of readiness to react to all situations.”
The broad concern here, in an armed force that has fended off the massively better-equipped Russian military during a slow relentless four-year conflict, is that this is the beginning of a new episode. That Moscow really seeks to control not just naval traffic in and out of the Sea of Azov, but also the sea itself.
The goal, they worry, is to dominate the Ukrainian coast between Russia proper and the Crimean peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014. The peninsula is currently only reachable from Russia through an expensive bridge across the Kerch Strait. A land corridor would be a huge advantage.
For now, Ukrainian officials say, Russia’s measures extend to simply limiting traffic in and out of the sea. “Russian coast guard ships take under control the civilian ships going to our ports and take some time to check all documents”, said Nosenko. “More than twenty ships are waiting on that side to proceed to our ports.”
Further along the coast, the media are treated to a show of the strength that Ukraine’s military has mustered in the last four years, a display of attack helicopters strafing an empty field, and anti-aircraft guns shooting a flare over the Azov coast.
But it isn’t going to change Moscow’s plans in and of itself. What would is global unified condemnation, but that’s been limited. The commander of Ukraine’s joint operation, Sergei Naev, told CNN: “I think that the American leader must say to our enemy to stops his aggression and stop it now.”
With 24 sailors still in Russian prisons and a vital sea route now seized, it seems, Kiev has found itself much more isolated than in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. The US has not led the world in further sanctions against Moscow, and instead President Donald Trump has, until his last-minute cancellation of their G20 meeting, entertained a chummy one-on-one with Vladimir Putin. Ukraine has, if you discount the countless rhetoric of “grave concern” echoing around European capitals, been left to go it alone.
Friday their response gained an edge, when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeted that Russians aged 16 to 60 would be barred from entering Ukraine, the most concrete measure taken yet by Kiev during the 30 days of the martial law they have declared.
Poroshenko cited the fact that Russian citizens entered illegally in 2014 to foment the unrest in Crimea and the East. But these are two countries that have been symbiotic for decades, and it’ll hurt Ukrainians as much as Russians.
Clearing leaves up from green areas near Mariupol’s under-used railway tracks is a group of Ukrainian women, in orange overalls, who will probably add the ban on Russians to the list of things they blame their president for.
“If we had a normal president would women work like this, in this kind of job?”, asked Maria, as she and her six colleagues raced towards the Biz Cafe near the rail tracks for a short and early lunch.
“I have relatives in Russia,” interjected Elena. “We are Russian. I don’t understand this kind of conflict.”
In the cutting chill, Poroshenko appears to have taken the blame for the damage the war has done to their hard graft world, while Putin has emerged cleaner, stronger, despite being to blame for the repeated invasions and the threat of another. “I don’t know why [Trump] supports Poroshenko”, said Elena.
A third, Anastasia, said: “I have many Russian friends who worry for us like we worry for them. We need another, good president.”
On a cliff top overlooking the idle port strolls Dimitry Ponomaryo, a little breathless from the steep climb, but his lungs full of the discontent caused by a crashing wartime economy here. “There is little work here and no one has paid us, we don’t have enough money. Russia’s don’t need to attack, they won’t invade.”
He added he thought sanctions would be toughened if Russia invaded, but that Trump was not, at present, being that weak. “He should talk with Putin but also close the Bosphorus [Strait into the Black Sea] to the Russians and then we will see how they feel.”