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.
A worker loading yellow peas into a general cargo vessel bound for Turkey, at the Port of Berdyansk, the smaller of Ukraine’s two main ports on the Sea of Azov.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times
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.”
Such fears have highlighted how easy it is for Russia to squeeze Mariupol and Ukraine as a whole by dialing up and down pressure. It eases off when it wants to head off calls abroad for sanctions and assert plausible deniability, while leaving such a cloud of uncertainty that nobody can be sure what the risks are.
It has done this throughout its more than four-year-long conflict with Ukraine, sending troops into eastern Ukraine whenever its local proxies lose ground to Ukrainian forces and then pulling back just enough whenever Western outrage threatens to bubble over.
Ukraine has itself often played into Russia’s hands by engaging in sometimes wild exaggeration that only increases uncertainty and alarm. The infrastructure minister, for example, repeatedly compared Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, to Hitler during his visit to Mariupol and warned that Russia was poised to invade not only Ukraine, but also Western Europe. Such hyperbole gives traction to Russian propaganda that depicts Ukraine as untrustworthy and hellbent on war.
Russia’s attack on three small Ukrainian naval vessels near the Kerch Strait, which Mr. Putin dismissed as a minor “border incident,” took place in international waters, according to an analysis of Russian-provided maritime coordinates by the investigative group, Bellingcat. It was the first time that Russia has clashed openly with Ukraine’s military, instead of through local proxies and Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms, known as “little green men.”
The attack and Russia’s restrictions on traffic to and from the Mariupol and Berdyansk ports are raising insurance costs and forcing exporters in southeastern Ukraine, which include two large steel mills, to seek alternative routes by rail. Landings at Mariupol’s port, in decline since the February 2014 ouster of President Viktor F. Yanukovych, slumped to 532 last year from 1,417 in 2014. And what had been a slow decline became a free-fall after Russia fired on the Ukrainian ships.
More important in a geopolitical sense, said James R. Holmes, a professor of maritime strategy at the United States Naval War College, the Russian actions pose a challenge to international maritime law.
He compared Russia’s recent moves to China’s push to assert ownership over virtually the whole South China Sea. A presenter of Russian state television’s flagship news program recently referred to the Sea of Azov as an “inland sea” and suggested it belonged to Russia. This despite a 2003 treaty between Moscow and Kiev that guarantees unimpeded access to what the accord defined as a body of water shared equally by the two countries.
“It’s an effort to set a precedent that Russia can then apply to other seas that it would also like to dominate if not control, much as the South China Sea is an expanse that China would like to ‘own,’ ” he said. “If Russia can define the Azov Sea as Russian territorial waters, there’s no reason in principle it couldn’t do so in the wider Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, Sea of Okhotsk, et cetera. So this is an easy win for Moscow and an easy place to set that precedent.”
On the surface, Mariupol shows little sign of being on a war footing, despite a feverish campaign by state-controlled Russian news outlets to paint the city and the sea around it as being convulsed by Ukrainian war mongering.
The authorities have not, as the Russian news media reported, dragooned children into digging trenches in preparation for all-out war, nor have they infected the sea off Mariupol with cholera, as another Russian report claimed, though nine Ukrainian tanks did suddenly appear last week at the port. The city lies in one of 10 regions now under martial law, declared by Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko, in response to the clash at sea.
Mr. Poroshenko’s declaration has had little visible impact on Mariupol, but it has added to the workload of Lt. Col. Volodymyr Levandovskyi, the commander at the city’s military recruitment center. He has started sleeping in his office because he has so much to do.
He and his staff have been calling in reservists for medical checks to make sure they are in fit condition should the government order a general mobilization. He also turned on an illuminated red alert sign at the entrance to remind his officers that, however calm Mariupol might seem, these are dangerous times in the port city.
“I can say with 100 percent conviction that this city will not be taken,” Colonel Levandovskyi, said.
Whether Russia or its proxies in eastern Ukraine have any real intention of trying, as they did in 2014 and 2015, to seize Mariupol, Ukraine’s biggest city on the Sea of Azov, is far from certain. But one thing is clear: The city, having just recovered from earlier struggles to keep it part of Ukraine, risks being slowly throttled by disruption in shipping traffic to its port.
“A city can survive even if it loses the equivalent of an arm or a leg, but this port is the heart of Mariupol,” said Marina Pereshivaylova, a veteran manager at the state-owned port who helped organize resistance to previous attempts by pro-Russian groups to seize the city.
The president’s declaration of martial law, which was denounced by his political rivals and Mr. Putin a as a stunt to lift his popularity ahead of presidential elections in March, was welcomed by Colonel Levandovskyi. He called it a long-overdue move that “has added official words to what we have been living here for four years.”
That is the period Ukraine has been fighting to hold back separatist rebels and their Russian military helpers — Russian soldiers “on vacation,” according to the Kremlin — who in 2015 advanced to the outskirts of Mariupol after seizing the nearby city of Donetsk, which has declared itself an independent “people’s republic,” a country that not even Russia recognizes.
Mariupol’s political elite, dominated by one-time supporters of Mr. Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in 2014, worries about the port but does not share Mr. Poroshenko’s alarm over a possible large-scale attack by Russia.
The head of the City Council, Stepan Makhsma, a member of the Moscow-friendly Opposition Bloc, played down the current crisis and described Russia as “our neighbor” rather than a foe, as Mr. Poroshenko and his ministers routinely do. Instead of blaming Moscow for the current rise in tension, he said, Ukraine “must take all steps to put relations in order.”
But in a sign that the city’s often pro-Russian local political and economic elite has an interest in avoiding instability fomented by Moscow, Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s most powerful oligarch and a dominant force in Mariupol, moved the corporate registration of a soccer club he owns to the city. The team, Shakhtar, which played in Donetsk until it fell to Russian-backed rebels, relocated to the western city of Lviv. It will not play in Mariupol, but will pay taxes there.
Sergiy Taruta, a Mariupol businessman who served briefly as the region’s governor in 2014 before being driven from his office in the nearby city of Donetsk by a pro-Russian mob, said that Mariupol ultimately was a pawn in larger struggles. Mr. Putin’s machinations in the Sea of Azov, he said, signaled the Kremlin’s determination not only to cement its hold on Crimea, but also to parade its defiance of the West.
“There is a big geopolitical conflict today between Russia and America. Ukraine, unfortunately, is suffering from this. Without a resolution of this geopolitical struggle, Russia will show its strength wherever possible,” he said.
A member of Parliament for Mariupol, Mr. Taruta voted against martial law, not because he does not think the crisis is serious, but because he does not see any point to it other than Mr. Poroshenko’s own political calculations.
“Ukraine is obviously not in a state to resist Russia,” he said. “We need stronger support. We can’t solve this problem on our own.”