Warning shots fired by Russian warship in Black Sea

Tensions in the Black Sea ratcheted up another notch at the weekend after a Russian warship on Sunday August 13th fired warning shots at Turkish general cargo ship Sukru Okan (IMO 8311560) in international waters in the southwestern Black Sea as it made its way northwards. It was the first time Russia had fired on merchant shipping beyond Ukraine since the Black Sea Corridor agreement ended in July.

The attack was at some time during mid-morning, with the vessel about 30nm off the Turkish coast, north-west of Istanbul.

Russia had previously stated that all ships heading to Ukrainian waters would henceforth be deemed potential weapon-carriers. However, it had not previously taken any action.

On Sunday Russia said that patrol ship Vasily Bykov had fired automatic weapons on the Palau-flagged Sukru Okan after the ship’s captain failed to respond to a request to halt for an inspection. Russia said the vessel was making its way toward the Ukrainian port of Izmail. Refinitiv shipping data showed the ship was currently near the coast of Bulgaria and heading toward the Romanian port of Sulina.

The Russian military boarded the vessel with the help of a Ka-29 helicopter, the country’s defence ministry said, adding that “after the inspection group completed its work on board, the Sukru Okan continued on its way to the port of Izmail”.

A Turkish defence ministry official said that Ankara was looking into the circumstances surrounding event.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the incident was a “clear violation of international law of the sea, an act of piracy and a crime against civilian vessels of a third country in the waters of other states”. He wrote on social media that “Ukraine will draw all the necessary conclusions and choose the best possible response”. Zelenskiy did not mention the incident in his nightly video address.

Natalia Humeniuk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern military command, observed that the Russian statement had not been confirmed by other official sources.

As well as stating that it would treat any ships approaching Ukrainian ports as potential military vessels, and their flag countries as combatants on the Ukrainian side, Russia also attacked Ukrainian grain facilities on the Danube. The latest move could therefore be seen as putting further pressure on Ukrainian plans to export a greater percentage of its grain from Black Sea ports such as Izmail, sticking close to the Romanian and Bulgarian coasts while en route to Istanbul.

Alternatively, or possibly in addition, the Russian move could be a reaction to the announcement by Ukraine last week that it would be establishing a unilateral “corridor” for vessels to leave the now blockaded Ukrainian ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhne. Firing on a merchant ship could also be seen as a signal of the inadvisability of ships in those ports risking the journey without Russian cooperation.

Last week Ukraine attacked a sanctioned Russian oil tanker south of the Kerch Strait in the eastern Black Sea, as well as a warship at the Novorossiysk naval base on the Russian Black Sea coast.

Insurance industry sources said rates for additional war risk premiums had remained relatively stable on Monday August 14th, although there was a possibility that the already high rates would rise if a ship was damaged or sunk.

1989-built, Palau-flagged, 2,155 gt Sukru Okan is owned and managed by OG Shipping Ltd of Mersin, Turkiye. It is entered with West P&I (Eastern Claims team) on behalf of OG Shipping Ltd. As of August 14th the vessel was listed as en route from Chalkis, Greece, to Sulina, Romania, which lies on the south side of Musura Bay (Ukraine is on the north side). The vehicle along with many others, was underway, but on the south side of Sulina – i.e., quite distinctly not in Ukrainian waters.