Russia to close parts of Black Sea for six months

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MOSCOW, April 16, 2021 (BSS/AFP) – Russia will restrict the
navigation of foreign military and official ships in parts of the
Black Sea until October, a Russian news agency reported Friday, a move
that was swiftly condemned by Ukraine and the EU.

Tensions between Moscow and Kiev have escalated in recent weeks
following an uptick in fighting between Ukraine’s army and pro-Russia
separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Russia has massed its troops along Ukraine’s northern and eastern
borders and on the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed from
Ukraine in 2014. This week Russia also conducted navy drills in the
Black Sea.

“From 21:00 on April 24 until 21:00 on October 31, passage through
the territorial sea of the Russian Federation for foreign military
ships and other state vessels will be halted,” the state-run RIA
Novosti news agency cited a defence ministry statement as saying.

The restrictions will affect the western tip of Crimea, the
peninsula’s southern coastline from Sevastopol to Hurzuf, and a
“rectangle” off the Kerch peninsula near the Opuksky Nature Reserve.

A senior European Union official described the move as a “highly
worrying development”.

The move contradicts norms of free maritime passage and
international law and adds to tensions around “the military buildup on
the other side of the Russian border with Ukraine,” the official told
AFP.

– Increasing tensions –

The official added that the restrictions would increase tensions as
Russia was “taking unilateral measures on an international space”.

One of the areas affected by Russia’s restrictions is located near
the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov and
is of crucial importance for the export of grain and steel from
Ukraine.

The Kerch Strait became a scene of confrontation in 2018 after
Russia seized three Ukrainian ships there over alleged violations of
its territorial waters.

Ukraine had been free to navigate the Kerch Strait along with
Russia until 2014, when Moscow claimed full control of the waterway
after annexing Crimea.

The Kerch Strait is also the site of a costly 19-kilometre
(12-mile) bridge connecting Crimea with mainland Russia that Moscow
opened in 2018.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry on Thursday slammed the navigation
restrictions, which were initially reported without specifics earlier
this week, as a “usurpation of the sovereign rights of Ukraine”.

It also stressed that under the UN Convention on the Law of the
Sea, “Russia must neither obstruct or halt transit through the
international strait to ports in the Sea of Azov”.