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Russia plots annexation of 15,000 square miles near Ukraine

Russian lawmakers are plotting the annexation of the Sea of Azov, a shallow body of water which is shared territory between Ukraine and Russia per a two-decade-old treaty.

Lawmakers are set to approve a bill on the recognition of the Sea of Azov as an internal Russian body of water by the end of 2023, Mikhail Sheremet, a member of Russia’s State Duma (parliament’s lower chamber) told Russia’s state-run news agency RIA Novosti on Tuesday.

Such a move would likely set “conditions to coerce recognition of Russia’s illegal annexation of occupied Crimea and Kherson, Zaporizhia, and Donetsk,” the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a U.S.-based think tank, said in its latest analysis of the conflict on Tuesday.

Newsweek has contacted the foreign ministries of Ukraine and Russia for comment.

Ukrainian soldier aboard a military boat

Ukrainian soldier stands guard aboard military boat called “Dondass” moored in Mariupol, Sea of Azov, port on November 27, 2018. Russian lawmakers are plotting the annexation of the Sea of Azov.

Russia and Ukraine signed and ratified a treaty in 2003 and 2004 that included stipulations that the Sea of Azov, a body of water of about 15,000 square miles, is a historically internal water of both Russia and Ukraine and that vessels flying Ukrainian or Russian flags in the Sea of Azov enjoy freedom of navigation, the ISW noted.

The think tank said that in February, the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) of Ukraine had denounced the treaty, saying Moscow had violated the stipulation that all issues concerning the Sea of Azov should be resolved by peaceful, bilateral means. Kyiv also said the treaty’s authorization of Russian warships to freely navigate the sea posed a threat to Ukrainian national security.

In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that also denounced the treaty, saying that Ukraine lost its status as a littoral state of the Sea of Azov when Russia—illegally—annexed the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in September 2022.

“The proposed bill likely portends a series of corresponding Russian administrative measures that would require maritime traffic en route to or from ports on the Sea of Azov to formally recognize the sea as a Russian internal body of water and, therefore, to de facto recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of occupied Ukrainian territories,” the ISW said.

Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, said in an article for the Middle East Institute in September 2022 that the Sea of Azov holds geopolitical importance for both Russia and Ukraine.

Given its position near the port city of Mariupol, the Sea of Azov is “vital for Ukraine’s economic and military wellbeing,” said Coffey.

The Sea of Azov is also important for Russia’s continued occupation of the annexed Crimean peninsula for logistical reasons, he said.

“With Ukraine still controlling access to the Isthmus of Perekop, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait play a role in connecting mainland Russia with Crimea and allows the resupply of Russian troops based there,” Coffey wrote, adding that throughout the military history of the region, the Sea of Azov has played an important role for resupplying troops in Crimea.

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