ARC experts, Associate Professor Eduard Pleshko, Professor Borys Babin
Russia’s maritime aggression, which disregards international law and threatens international security, is a serious problem and extremely relevant for our region. The temporary occupation of Crimea demonstrates to us the conduct of various hybrid operations to cover up aggression. Particularly noteworthy is the use by the aggressor of the alleged support of the dozen countries where Russia has so far managed to maintain its influence.
The San Remo Instruction on the Rules of Naval Warfare of 1994 is an example of modern international law taking into account the significant specifics of military operations in the maritime sphere, in contrast to the actions of ground forces. But it raises the question of whether international law should determine the appropriate specifics of maritime aggression.
For example, Syria should be mentioned. In particular, as experts have repeatedly noted, there is a stable channel for the illegal transfer of stolen Ukrainian grain from the berth of the Avlita stevedoring company in the Russia-occupied port of Sevastopol with the assistance of the Syrian authorities of the dictator Assad, in the situation of other systemic facts of their illegal ignoring the sovereignty of Ukraine.
Large trade and information platform “Refinitiv” indicates that the amount of wheat that Russia transferred to Syria from the port of temporarily occupied Sevastopol increased 17 times in 2022, and it exceeds half a million tons and makes up at least a third of the grain imported to Syria.
If for the whole of 2021 about 28 thousand tons of grain were illegally transferred from the occupied Sevastopol to Syria, then only in October 2022 – more than 76 thousand tons. The main illegal carriers are three bulk carriers that not only transport stolen grain under the Syrian flag, but also belong to the Syrian state, these are “Laodicea”, “Finikia” and “Souria”.
Since the sanctions have made it difficult for Syria and Russia to trade via maritime transport in the usual way and have taken these processes out of the usual procedures for marine insurance, both countries are relying on their own grain-carrying ships, including three Syrian ones that are under US-imposed sanctions.
Thus, the Assad regime in Syria is clearly demonstrating an open disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty and an extremely hostile foreign policy towards Ukraine.
The criminal “recognition” by the Assad regime of the fake “independence” of the terrorist “republics” of the Russian-occupied East of Ukraine led to the rupture of diplomatic relations, the introduction of a trade embargo by Ukraine and the imposition of sanctions against Syrian legal entities and individuals.
Demonstrating a clear forceful threat and impunity, Russia has stolen at least one billion US dollars worth of wheat from the temporarily occupied regions of Ukraine and is exporting it to Syria in significant volumes.
At the same time, it is worth recalling that on January 18, 2017, an agreement was signed in Damascus between Russia and Syria on the expansion of the territory of the 720th Logistics Point of the Russian Naval Forces and on the entry of Russian warships into the territorial sea, internal waters and ports of Syria.
Under the terms of the agreement, the Logistics Point was transferred by Syria to Russia for free use with full immunity from the civil and administrative jurisdiction of Syria. The maximum number of Russian warships that are allowed to stay in the Logistics Point at the same time is 11 units, including warships with a nuclear power plant.
The 2017 agreement is designed for 49 years and is automatically extended for another 25 years, unless either party notifies the other in writing of its desire to terminate it within the agreed period.
On July 30, 2017, in an effort to demonstrate “control over the region and build-up of power,” Russia held a naval parade on the roadstead of the port of Tartus in “honor of the day of the Navy”, in which 8 ships and support vessels were involved. In August 2017, in an interview with the Russia’s TV program “Voyennaya Priemka” (“Military Acceptance”), Alexei Tarasov, the chief of staff of the Logistics Point, estimated the volume of cargo traffic at the facility at 100,000 tons per month.
Also, under the agreement, Syria agreed to the delivery of military cargo by the ships of the Russian company “Oboronlogistics”, which is under the control of the Russian Ministry of Defense, which are then used outside the Logistics Point. The company itself was created by the aggressor in order to circumvent the Montreux Convention, since the transportation is carried out by seemingly “non-naval” ships.
Vessels of the Russian sanctioned “Oboronlogistics” transported about 2 million tons of cargo in 2022, which is in line with the result of last year and almost four times more than in 2020. First of all, the Novorossiysk-Tartus shipping line is actively working.
In April 2022, the government commission of the aggressor “on improving the sustainability of the development of the Russian economy under sanctions” included “Oboronlogistics” LLC, which has 9 vessels, in the “list of system-creating organizations of the Russian economy in the field of maritime freight transport”.
Under these conditions, a simple question arises – how to evaluate such a position of Syria and whether it is worth limiting ourselves to the break in diplomatic relations.
Moreover, international law should provide an answer to the topical question: does a state like Assad’s Syria, in terms of the current Russian aggression against Ukraine, retain the status of a neutral country, and whether Syria can be considered a participant in an armed conflict, despite the absence of such an official announcement.
Returning to the San Remo Instructions, we recall that, according to paragraph “c” of Article 10 of this international document, subject to other norms of the law of armed conflict at sea, military operations by naval forces are lawful in the exclusive economic zone and on the continental shelf of neutral states or over such a zone or shelf.
In this case, only the specifically defined interests of the neutral state must be observed, but it is not directly required to obtain its consent. But if this is not a neutral state, the conditions for actions, including in relation to ships flying the flag of such a state, of course, become different.
It is also known about the intentions of the aggressor to place a naval base in Sudan. This raises another question: should the transitional administration of this country, which is in a regime of anarchy, be aware of the subsequent international legal assessment of its actions, and also what are the consequences of Sudan’s consent to the implementation of aggressive naval activities from its territory.
In this dimension, among other things, it is worth mentioning the parliamentary statement “On Russia’s Aggression in Areas of Black and Azov Seas and in Kerch Strait”, approved by the Resolution of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine dated September 20, 2022 No. 2595-IX and sent to the UN, to the European Parliament , in PACE, in the parliamentary assemblies of the OSCE and NATO, in the governments and parliaments of the countries of the world.
In this statement, Ukraine recalls the principle of using the seas for peaceful purposes and that the blockade of the ports or coasts of a state by the armed forces of another state is qualified as an act of aggression, and a war of aggression is a crime against international peace.
In addition to stating this form of maritime aggression, the Ukrainian parliament notes that UN member states are obliged to maintain international peace and security and, to this end, must take effective collective measures to prevent and eliminate threats to peace and suppress acts of aggression or other violations of the peace. Thus, not only the statement and condemnation of maritime aggression, but also the obligation to counteract such aggression arises for all civilized countries of the world.
The said statement also refers to the state policy of Russia regarding the progressive militarization of the Black and Azov Seas and the Kerch Strait, systematic cases of complicating or blocking international shipping by Russia, which undermines security and stability in the region and beyond.
Also in the document, the Ukrainian parliament points to the long-term consistency and systemic nature of Russia’s policy aimed at causing progressive damage to Ukraine as a maritime state and hindering its maritime activities.
It can be stated that the actions of the Assad regime. related to the occupied Crimea, described above, directly contribute to Russia in committing the corresponding illegal actions of maritime aggression described in Statement No. 2595-IX.