In 2014, the Azov Sea Region (covering the Kherson, Donestsk, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts in Eastern Ukraine) fell victim to political tensions with Russia on the Crimean peninsula and armed conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
The Sea of Azov is bounded in the north-west by Ukraine, in the east by Russia and in the south by the Kerch Peninsula of Crimea and the Taman Peninsula. The two peninsulas are separated by the Kerch Strait that connects the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea.
In 2014, Russia built a bridge over the Kerch Strait to connect the two peninsulas. The Kerch Strait is the only sea route between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, and a strategic trade axis giving both countries access to the Mediterranean. Since the inauguration of the bridge in 2019, communities in the region face complex challenges and heightened tensions.
Significant economic repercussions against a backdrop of political crisis
The construction of the bridge has fueled the high tensions between the two countries, while eastern Ukraine remains plagued by conflict.
The Ukrainian naval and commercial bases located on the Sea of Azov, especially in Mariupol and Berdiansk, whose only exit is the Strait of Kerch, are suffering significant economic impacts, with repercussions on the entire region. The new bridge imposes a size limit – the largest ships are no longer able to pass. This de facto blockade slows down the entry and exit of both Ukrainian and foreign vessels to and from Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov. Imports and exports, especially of steel and grain, are affected.
Between conflict, maritime restrictions and the Covid-19 pandemic, the region has suffered significant economic damage. Eastern Ukraine is highly industrialized. There are coal mines, chemical product and processing plants, and a number of iron and steel plants, whose activity has slowed down sharply in this complex and unstable context. According to a survey of companies in the Azov region conducted by IMPACT Initiatives, the main obstacles to restarting business at the pre-conflict level are declining demand, loss of markets and lack of personnel.
Supporting economic and social recovery while preserving the environment
In 2020, ACTED, IMPACT and the Center for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development (SeeD) launched a resilience-building project in the Sea of Azov region, with the support of the European Union. This project aims to develop socio-economic, psychosocial, and environmental policies and programs, and to build local capacity to influence environmental policies and practices in the Mariupol region. Activities will include socio-economic and psychosocial assessments, brainstorming ‘Reflection’ workshops, environmental risk assessments, mapping of local civil society organizations, assessment of their specific needs, and grant making.
Environmental issues at the heart of resilience
The environmental aspect is crucial, because beyond the economic stakes, the reality of the region poses real problems for the environment. By their very nature, the heavy metal processing industries can pose serious risks to the environment, in the event of flooding of coal mines for example, or the discharge of chemical or toxic products or wastewater into rivers.
The proximity of the fighting poses the threat of a major environmental disaster, with disastrous consequences for the communities, fauna and flora of the region. ACTED is therefore promoting more information dissemination on the risks of some of these sites and on pollution in major industrial centers, such as Mariupol.
In this way, the project will provide a better understanding of environmental risks and a better overview of the capacity of local civil society organizations to engage in environmental protection actions. It will demonstrate the impacts of the conflict and trade restrictions on the socio-economic situation of the region, on the population, and on the environment, and thus provide concrete recommendations to support economic and social recovery.