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Investigating The Kerch Strait Incident

November 30, 2018

By Michael Cruickshank

Translations: Русский

On the 25th of November, Ukraine and Russia were involved in one of the most serious confrontations of the almost 5-year long conflict between the two countries. Russian Navy vessels first rammed and then later fired on and captured three Ukrainian Navy vessels, marking the first time Russian-flagged military units had officially attacked those of Ukraine.

Like many events in this conflict, both sides put out conflicting stories of what happened, as well as statements accusing the other of breaching international law. But what can we say for certain happened?

The First Confrontation

The opening act of the clash between the two navies began around 07:00 Russian time. Three Ukrainian Navy vessels – the Gyurza-M-class artillery boats ‘Berdyansk’ and ‘Nikopol’ and the tugboat ‘Yany Kapu’ – sailed towards the Kerch Strait, aiming to transit to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. At around this time, they were intercepted by Russian Coast Guard vessels including the ‘Don’ and the ‘Izumrud’.

At this point, the clarity of the picture begins to break down. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) claims that Russian vessels attempted to hail the Ukrainian ships and ask them to turn back, as they were not allowed to transit the Kerch Strait without a Russian navigator on board. The Ukrainians, for their part, claim they were illegally intercepted and had the right to free navigation through the strait.

As to what happened next, we need to analyse several primary sources. The first of these is an alleged communications intercept released by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). In it, several groups of Russian naval officers discuss the events which took place. There is no specific timeframe given, and it appears that the intercept is a collection of several recordings between different people forming seven discrete conversations.

Video 1: Intercepted Russian communications from the 25th of November released by the SBU.

From this recording, several key pieces of information can be taken away. The first is that the Russian vessel ‘Don’ rammed the ‘Yany Kapu’ twice. Once at 07:35 at the location (44°56’00″N 36°30’08″E) and a second time at 7:44 at (44°56’06″N 36°30’05″E). The second takeaway is that Russian vessel ‘Izumrud’ was damaged in a collision with another Russian ship.

Another piece of evidence is a video showing the Russian ship ‘Don’ appearing to intentionally ram the Ukrainian tug ‘Yany Kapu’. This footage can be seen below.

Video 2: Footage of Russian Coast Guard vessel ‘Don’ ramming the Yani Kapu.

From this footage, several things can be seen. First, the identity of the boat which the video was shot from can be determined from the distinctive off-set 30mm autocannon seen at 0’51” in the footage, which is also present on the preexisting photos of the ‘Don’. Second, the approximate time of day that the video was shot can also be determined. In the footage, it appears to be shortly after sunrise. According to SunCalc, sunrise on the 25th of November in this area was at 7:46. As such, the video must have been shot within around an hour after sunrise the given the relatively low position of the sun in the sky. As well, in the video, a voice (presumably that of the pilot of the ‘Don’) shouts “eight twenty-one (08:21)” immediately after the collision. It is likely this is the time of the collision and appears to converge with the timeframe suggested by the solar position.

This is further backed up by an apparently unnoticed detail in the video. In it, the tug ‘Yani Kapu’ has already sustained damage from at least two individual strikes. This would confirm that it happened after the 07:35 and 07:44 strikes mentioned in the SBU intercept video. Photos of these areas of damage, when compared to a photo of the undamaged ship taken just a day before can be seen below.

Image 1: FSB photo of the undamaged tug ‘Yani Kapu’ on the 24th of November

Image 1: FSB photo of the undamaged tug ‘Yani Kapu’ on the 24th of November

 

Image 2: Damage sustained to the starboard stern of the ‘Yani Kapu’. (screenshot from ramming video)

Image 2: Damage sustained to the starboard stern of the ‘Yani Kapu’. (screenshot from ramming video)

Image 3: Damage sustained to the starboard midship of the ‘Yani Kapu’. (screenshot from ramming video)

Image 3: Damage sustained to the starboard midship of the ‘Yani Kapu’. (screenshot from ramming video)

Notably, following this video, the Yani Kapu was struck at least one more time. Video released by Telekanal Zvezda shot an hour or two later in the morning, when the sun was higher in the sky, shows that the tug has sustained additional damage to its port stern, which was not present either in the ramming video or the image taken of the Yani Kapu on the 24th of November.

Image 4: Damage sustained to the port stern of the ‘Yani Kapu’. (Zvezda video screenshot)

Image 4: Damage sustained to the port stern of the ‘Yani Kapu’. (Zvezda video screenshot)

Further evidence also backs up information from the SBU intercept. Images released by Kerch.FM show damage sustained by the Russian Coast Guard ship ‘Izumrud’. The location of this damage (high on the starboard midship area) is consistent with a strike from a Russian vessel larger than the smaller Ukrainian boats. As well the long scar along the side of the ship is inconsistent with weapons damage. This fits in with the SBU tape wherein a collision between ‘Izumrud’ and another Russian vessel is discussed.

Image 5: Damage to the Russian Coast Guard vessel ‘Izumrud’ sustained in a collision with another Russian ship.

Image 5: Damage to the Russian Coast Guard vessel ‘Izumrud’ sustained in a collision with another Russian ship. (Via Kerch.FM)

 

The Second Confrontation

As the day continued, Russian Coast Guard vessels continued blocking manoeuvres against the three Ukrainian ships. A large cargo vessel was used to physically block the narrow passage under the Kerch Bridge, and a separate group of three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Sea of Azovwas forced to return to their base in Berdyansk.

Little information exists for what transpired over this period, however, the SBU intercept recording suggests that one of the Russian Coast Guard vessels took on a complement of 10 special forces soldiers to assist in later actions.

Image 6: Comparison of the large red ship in Zvezda footage and an image of the bulk carrier 'Aviona'

Image 6: Comparison of the large red ship in Zvezda footage and an image of the bulk carrier ‘Aviona’

The aforementioned Telekanal Zvezda video also contains another piece of useful information. In the first few seconds of the video, a bulk freight ship identified as the ‘Aviona’ can be seen within a few hundred meters from one of the Ukrainian armoured artillery boats. Using ship-tracking website MarineTraffic, we can determine that the ‘Aviona’ was at anchor in the Kerch Strait in effectively the same location for the entirety of November 25. This gives us a new data point for the location of the Ukrainian ships later in the day, much further north than previous positions.

Image 7: Locations of the bulk carrier 'Aviona' on the 25th of November

Image 7: Locations of the bulk carrier ‘Aviona’ on the 25th of November (Source: MarineTraffic)

Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which Ukraine and the Russian Federation are parties to, territorial waters extend at most 12 nautical miles (22.2 km; 13.8 mi) from the baseline (usually the mean low-water mark) of a coastal state. Notably, this additional position near the ‘Aviona’ shows a Ukrainian vessel within not just the territorial waters of Crimea, but also mainland Russia.

It is also worth noting that Ukraine, as well as most Western countries, does not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and by extension its territorial sea. Moreover, Ukraine has cited a 2003 agreement with Russia that denotes the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait as a shared waterway, allowing free passage.

After 18:00 local time, however, the Ukrainian ships attempted to leave the area, and return to their home port of Odessa. They were, by all accounts pursued, intercepted, fired on, and boarded. Several Ukrainian soldiers were injured and the ships were later captured by Russian Naval forces.

Both sides made attempts to assert that this clash happened either outside of Russian-claimed territorial waters (in the case of Ukraine) and inside them (in the case of Russia).

The Russian FSB released a detailed timeline of the events of the day, including a number of geographical positions in which key events occurred. These events are plotted on the map seen below.

 

mage 7: Timeline of the events and key positions according to the FSB.

Image 8: Timeline of the events and key positions according to the FSB.

The Russian FSB makes that point that the initial interception, as well as the warning shots, and finally the shots which hit the ‘Berdyansk’ all took place within the ‘territorial waters of Russia’. This does not align with the location data they themselves released.

Specifically, the most serious incident – the shooting of the ‘Berdyansk’ – took place at 44°51.3’N, 36° 23.4 E  (notated in the official release as Ш=44° 51’3 СШ, Д=36° 23’4 ВД). We know the FSB is using decimal arc-minutes in their notation, rather than arc-minutes and arc-seconds, due to the fact that an earlier location is given as (Ш=44° 53’47 СШ, Д=36° 25’76 ВД) something which would be impossible under a degrees and minutes notation style – specifically the final digits ‘76’.

Image 8: Distance between the location where the ‘Berdyansk’ came under fire according to the FSB, and the coastline of Crimea.

Image 9: Distance between the location where the ‘Berdyansk’ came under fire according to the FSB, and the coastline of Crimea.

As can be seen in the above image, the FSB data, if correct, shows that the ‘Berdyansk’ was 22.72km from the coast of Crimea, and more than 500m outside of Russian-claimed territorial waters when it came under fire.

Ukraine for its part provided less detailed information regarding key locations during this period.

Image 9: Ukrainian release showing the locations of the capture of the three ships.

Image 10: Ukrainian release showing the locations of the capture of the three ships.

Unfortunately, while Ukraine asserts that its ships were outside of the 12 nautical mile UNCLOS limit, even if their location data is taken at face value, it is inconclusive. This is due to the fact that they only provided 4-digit locations. Such locations do not pinpoint a single point but rather a rectangle approximately 1.8 km on the N-S axis and 1.3km on the E-W axis. Given this level of imprecision, the positions could be potentially within, or outside of the 12 nautical mile limit. Ukraine likely does have access to more precise location data, and could make this public if it wishes to add clarity.

Additionally, an alleged mayday call released by Ukrainian publication Liga Novosti from one of the three Ukrainian vessels includes the audio “How many wounded do you have? I need help! I need help! Mayday! Mayday!” followed by the coordinates N 44° 51’ 00’’, E 36° 23’ 04’’. This location is southwest of the position Russia claims it fired on the ‘Berdyansk’, and is also outside of the 12 nautical mile limit, and thus in international waters.

As for the details of the confrontation itself, we again fall back on statements by both Ukraine and Russia, in lieu of primary sources. Interestingly, neither country’s statements contradict the other aside from their positions relative to the territorial waters line. Both sides claim that Russian forces shot at and crippled the ‘Berdyansk’, capturing it and the tug Yani Kapu shortly after. Initially, the Ukrainian military claimed that both the ‘Berdyansk’ and the ‘Nikopol’ ships had been damaged, before clarifying at 23:20 (Russian time) that only the ‘Berdyansk’ was hit.

Image 10: Damage to the Ukrainian Navy ship ‘Berdyansk’

Image 11: Damage to the Ukrainian Navy ship ‘Berdyansk’

Photos of the Ukrainian ships in port in Kerch post-capture show many small calibre bullet holes in the ‘Berdyansk’ as well as at least one large calibre hole in its bridge. This larger hit especially confirms that Russian forces were not shooting to disable the vessel, but rather to harm the crew. The FSB release itself notes that the Russian Coast Guard vessel ‘Izumrud’ issued threats to the ‘Berdyansk’ that “weapons to kill” would be used if the vessel did not comply with its request to stop.

Image 12: Interactive map showing key positions and events from the 25th of November

Summary:

From this information, several things are made clear. Firstly, based on geolocated video footage, Ukrainian ships did enter Russian-claimed territorial waters, both that of Crimea and mainland Russia in the Kerch Strait. Ukraine nonetheless argues this was legally permissible due to the 2003 agreement between the two countries. Secondly, we can say that the Ukrainian tug ‘Yani Kapu’ was intentionally rammed at least four times over a period of at least an hour. Thirdly, based on information provided by the Russian FSB which appears to incriminate themselves, the shooting of the ‘Berdyansk’ most likely took place in international waters.

(18:31 GMT – 1/12/18 – This article was updated to reflect that the ownership of the territorial waters extending from Crimea is disputed between Russia and Ukraine. They are in fact only Russian-claimed territorial waters, rather than internationally recognised boundaries. )

Michael Cruickshank

Michael Cruickshank is an Australian freelance conflict journalist currently based in Berlin, specialising in the OSINT, defense, the (mis)use of technology, and climate conflicts

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108 Comments

  1. rayrayahyeh@yahoo.co.uk

    As the Ukrainians failed to provide full information beforehand and did not take on required pilots , they got exactly what they must have expected . And were told to obtain .
    This site increasingly reeks of being intimately linked to an agenda born of the UK intel community . Itself no doubt working as intimately with the US Deep State with its need to foment hate and chaos .
    Makes me squirm to be British and linked to the filthy use of the Five Eyes Agreement .

    Reply
    • MichaeltheBicycle

      I dont think you read the article properly or maybe you are just lacking intellectual capacity.

      Reply
      • JustADude

        You think rayrayahyeh really cares about the contents of the article? XD I guess this was just to denigrate this site.

        BTW. very good article once again bellingcat.

        Reply
    • John Johnovich Smithin

      I have respect for you because, as a sophisticated troll, you actually sat down and thought for at least five minutes to produce this RT/Sputnik-style hardly covert pro-Russian conspirational non-analysis. Are you a troll officer as opposed to a footsoldier troll? I wonder about the salary differentials.

      Reply
  2. kisforyou

    If Ukrainian boats were really attacked in international waters, then this is piracy. And what is the punishment for piracy?

    Reply
    • Ngatimozart

      It’s not piracy. Under UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea):
      “Article 29
      Definition of warships
      For the purposes of this Convention, “warship” means a ship belonging to the armed forces of a State bearing the external marks distinguishing such ships of its nationality, under the command of an officer duly commissioned by the government of the State and whose name appears in the appropriate service list or its equivalent, and manned by a crew which is under regular armed forces discipline.​

      Article 30
      Non-compliance by warships with the laws and regulations of the coastal State
      If any warship does not comply with the laws and regulations of the coastal State concerning passage through the territorial sea and disregards any request for compliance therewith which is made to it, the coastal State may require it to leave the territorial sea immediately.

      Article 32
      Immunities of warships and other government ships operated for non-commercial purposes
      With such exceptions as are contained in subsection A and in articles 30 and 31, nothing in this Convention affects the immunities of warships and other government ships operated for non-commercial purposes.​”

      So technically Russia has committed an Act of War and in doing so has provided Ukraine with a moral and legal causus belli under international law.

      Reply
  3. Davdberg

    Its not piracy under UNCLOS. A government ship under government command cannot do ‘piracy’ acts; thus this means it is more a casus belli.

    Reply
  4. Lüko Willms

    Thanks for the research!

    For a full appreciation, we need to know what happened before these incidents.

    Was it clear that this little Ukrainian fleet tried to enter the Azov Sea via the Street of Kertsch, i.e. passing under the Russian built and owned bridge, without asking permission or even without announcing their intention?

    Have they been asked by Russian border control to identify themselves and to announce their intentions? And to ask for permission to pass under the bridge? What did the Ukrainians respond, if anything at all?

    Reply
    • Denys

      Actually, Ukrainians were asking permission to pass a Kertsch and a bridge. They made it in the same way as it was a few months earlier (and ships got to Azov without issues).

      Reply
    • Denys

      Actually, Ukrainians were asked permissions to pass Kertch and a bridge.
      Few months ago Ukrainian ships made the same and got into Azov without issues.
      Even more, previously they were navigated by russian pilot on board.

      Reply
  5. Adam

    As I read some of the comments, I think that the Russian trolls are very active in making difficult issues to explain even more difficult. And the answer is relatively simple – Russia annexed Krim and now tries to make his inner sea out of the sea of ​​Azov. Everything is done in a way “salami sausage”, ie piece by piece annexing the territory of Ukraine and gradual destabilization of this country. Everything takes place in violation of the basic principles of international law, however, Rozji authorities some time ago came to the conclusion that in an orderly world with such a civilization development they are unable to catch up in other countries and Russia is doomed to remain permanently in the league of countries with whom Nobody counts. Therefore, they decided to stir a bit, using the total pacifism and indolence of Western countries. They have no credit that in a world full of fear and haos nobody will look at Russia as a beggar, but for a country that has a large army. And international law? Well, Russia relies on it only when it is beneficial for it.

    Reply
      • oui oui

        ” making difficult issues to explain even more difficult. And the answer is relatively simple”
        this is signed
        hello , love and harmony , as you have a god being the truth and the referendum for the annexation of Crimea is a lie how can there be one of your priests blessing in Crimea

        Reply
    • Uncle

      I’m so sorry you hate all the nation. All countries have own propaganda for urging to accumulate angers on each other. Goverments make big mistakes pursueing own goals. West Ukraine always hates Russians, Russia annexed Crimea, helped separatists of Donbass, Ukraine made a provoke in Kerch Strait, Poroshenko asks a Nato help. They are always keeps us ready to fight. May be it’s time to start the full scale World War 3, using all amount of weapons. I think then after all the mankind will get new chance to live.

      Reply
  6. Nikolai

    When was the last time that Russia did something truly altruistic ?
    It makes you feel sad to see such a powerful country only use its strength to cause harm.
    Is it Putin’s method of binding a currupt country together – invent a foreign enemy ?

    Reply
  7. Jeroen

    Explaining to non russian speaking readers the transcripts of recordings which indicate that both one Russian Kamov Ka-52 helicopter and one Sukhoi Su-30 fighterbomber each fired two unguided (most probably S-5 55mm/2.2in) rockets at the Ukrainian “targets”. It could explain partly why the Ukrainian patrol vessel which was not captured at sea “voluntarily” sailed into the harbour with both captured ships. Russia also has S-8 and S-13 unguided rockets for its helicopters and jets.
    http://euromaidanpress.com/2018/12/03/russian-military-jets-blasted-ukrainian-ships-with-unguided-missiles-in-azov-sea-intercepts-reveal/

    Reply
    • Volo

      Dear Jeroen, thank you!

      It is reasonable to request Bellingcat’s update of this article, as:
      1. Zvezda video does not seem to have Aviona and Ukrainian boats the within a single shot, and
      2. It fails to notice aviation deployed to intercept the boats. I seriously doubt that the Ukrainian boats would were within anchorage 471, when attacked with unguided missiles.
      3. The captured vessels where delivered to Kerch port during daylight.

      I seriously doubt that the incident has taken almost 16 hours (!) – it is more than enough to reach Berdyansk at Gurza-M cruising speed.
      I further doubt that the boats actually succeeded in entering the Kerch Straight – there would be LOTS of complaints from all the ships, which were affected by all of the close maneuvers.

      Reply
      • Volo

        I stand corrected.
        Prosecutor office of Ukraine has published the Ukrainian official version:
        https://en.gp.gov.ua/ua/news.html?_m=publications&_t=rec&id=241530

        First Ukrainians were allowed to enter, than they where rammed, than allowed to enter again, then left on hold in anchorage 471 for at least 4 hours, then attempted to be disabled by chain, than radio-jammed, then (finally!) decided to flee, then were surrounded 11 ships and fired upon by machine guns (bullet holes) and aviation (two large holes in the hull).

        What can I say… Ukrainians seem to be very brave… And all parties involved are VERY STUPID.

        I hope Ukrainian crews get released soon and in fine health.

        Reply
  8. Alexey

    the review is very subjective, Some major facts been missed. 1. Thу trip was ordered to be executed in hidden manner , including the cross of the chanel by UA Millitary comader ( see docs published) 2 The convoy did not requested the cross of the chanell in appropriate manner in 24 hours before/ 3 the warship has prepeared the guns for fighting in side 12 mile zone. 4 Convoy commander reffused to follow instruction of cost guards and leve the zone during almost 12 hours. I am sure Cuban’s warship beed destroyd in 1 hour in case US border guard forces in the same situation.

    Reply
  9. Jari

    Ukrainian side says that they had told Russians in advance, that these ships are coming to Kerch Strait. Is there any evidence this?

    Reply
  10. Jeroen

    The Ukrainian Prosecutor General Office has collected evidence, radio recordings (75) witness statements and made a reconstruction of the incident.
    The Ukrainian vessels were escorted by a Russian vessel shortly from leaving port in Odessa, also they did inform the Russian side about there intention to pass the Kerch Strait, communication about pasisng rules were exchanged by a Russian vessel at 21.07 at 25 december.
    Then 21.30 the Russian vessel noticed closure of the Strait from 25 December 22.00 until 26 december 22.00. But the Russian side gave no explanation, and moreover remarkebly Russia did not notice other marine trafic neither NAVAREA III (Spain) nor published any NAVTEX Notice of such a closure. The Ukrainian vessels proceeded as planned an entered the 12 mile zone 06:08.
    A normal procedure would have been offering the Ukrainian an anchorage place short of the passage point, and inform them, with other vessels also waiting to pass, when to proceed, after taking the required pilot.

    Instead Russian vessels started to ram. Ukraine (had) noticed of its right to pass.

    https://en.gp.gov.ua/ua/news.html?_m=publications&_c=view&_t=rec&id=241530
    https://en.lb.ua/news/2018/12/04/6800_ukraine_prosecutors_show.html

    Eight individuals have been informed that they are suspects in the criminal case launched earlier.
    Among them are Adm Gennadiy Medvedev, chief of the Coast Guard and deputy chief of the FSB’s Border Service; Alexey Salyaev, commander of the Don coast guard ship (that rammed a Ukrainian tug); and Andrei Shipykin, commander of the Izumrud coast guard ship (that fired on the Ukrainian vessels).
    Also, according to the PGO press secretary, the court issued subpoenas for all the suspects to attend a court hearing on putting them into custody.
    In the near future, the notices of suspicion are expected to be served to over 10 servicemen of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the FSB Border Service, the Air Force and Air Defence, ranging from junior officers to generals.

    Reply

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