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Ukrainians were deceived by warning that Crimean bridge would ruin ports

Esra, a big bulk carrier, has just passed under and arch of the Kerch Bridge en route to Mariupol, Ukraine. Photo: Cavit Ege Tulca / MarineTraffic.com

Ukraine’s ports in the Azov Sea will lose as much as 43% of their cargo turnover because of the Kerch Bridge. As a result, the frontline region will begin to degrade, the Ukrainian authorities say. Their argument is that the bridge is too low for big bulkers to be able to pass it on their way to the Sea of Azov. But, as EADaily has found out, they are lying. A big bulker has just passed the bridge and is now heading for Mariupol. Its size is much bigger than the size mentioned by the Ukrainian authorities for a ship to be able to pass the Kerch Bridge.

Kiev’s story

The story began when in June Ukraine’s Deputy Infrastructure Minister Yuri Lavrenyuk warned that the Kerch Bridge was a threat to Ukraine’s national security as it would prevent some Ukrainian ships from going to the ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk and would consequently cause problems to the region’s metallurgical companies.

In Aug, Ukraine’s foreign ministry sent a note of protest to Russia concerning its plans to build a bridge across the Kerch Strait. The ministry said that the project was contrary to the international law. The passions went even higher when in Aug the Russians built the fairway arch of the bridge. Ukraine’s Deputy Minister for Temporary Occupied Territories and IDPs Heorhy Tuka said that Russia was planning to isolate Ukraine as the arch was too low for some Ukrainian ships to be able to pass it. He specified that the ships longer than 160 meters, higher than 41 meters and deeper than 8 meters would no longer be able to pass the Kerch Strait. So, according to Tuka, Mariupol will no longer be able to send and receive ships carrying more than 10,000 tons. Tuka and his ministry claim that as many as 144 Ukrainian ships are bigger than required. This is 23% of all Ukraine’s ships and 43% of all of its cargo turnover.

Deutsche Welle quoted the Ukrainian Sea Port Authority as saying that the average length of the ships navigating to Ukraine’s Azov ports is 175 meters, while their average draft is 9.6 meters. Acting Director of the Mariupol Port Alexander Oleynik said that the port would lose almost 30% of its large ships. “With the breakeven point being 350,000-400,000 tons, in Aug we will be able to carry just 160,000 tons as our key partners – Mariupol’s metallurgical companies – were forced to send their products to the southern ports,” Oleynik said.

“This is a threat to our contracts to supply almost 1 million tons of cast iron to the United States,” Ukraine’s Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies said.

All this was enough for Ukrainian mass media to say that Russia continues its economic war against Ukraine and is trying to “kill” its frontline region.

Russia’s story

Russia refuted the allegations. Its transport ministry said that the geometric parameters of the Kerch-Yenikale Channel had not been changed. “Since the opening of the channel in the 19th century, the maximum draft for a ship to be able to pass it has been 8 meters. So, we have imposed no restrictions here,” the Ministry said and added that the bridge is OK even for 252-meter-long ships and is high enough for all ships navigating in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. “We have thoroughly analyzed the navigation in the region and the bridge’s 35-meter clearance is OK for all ships navigating through the Kerch-Yenikale Channel. Our decision is balanced and based on a thorough preliminary analysis,” the ministry said.

Whom to believe?

We have inquired into the situation and have seen that the parameters of the ships currently anchored in Mariupol do not exceed the parameters mentioned by Ukraine’s Ministry of Temporary Occupied Territories and IDPs. The length of Rubus container ship and Sider Luck and Behcet bulkers does not exceed 160 meters and their draft is 8 meters. But, according to Marinetraffic, their cargo-carrying capacities are 13,600 tons and 15,600 tons, respectively, which is more than the 10,000-ton limit mentioned by the ministry. But the last Facebook post by the Mariupol Port has shown that the ministry was lying. The post says that the first ship from Mariupol passed the Kerch Bridge a few days ago and that it is carrying as much as 14,500 tons of cast iron to Italy. “Well aware of the restrictions of the bridge, the owners of the ship had shortened its mast and the vessel passed the bridge with no problems,” the post says.

In May, when there was yet no bridge in Kerch, Mariupol received Wuchow and Dokos, U.S. bulkers that can carry as much as 24,000-26,000 tons and are 186 meter long.

Today, the port has no such vessels but Marinetraffic says that very soon, it is to receive a couple. Quite recently, a ship called Esra passed the bridge on its way from the Italian port of Trieste to Mariupol and its capacity is almost the same as the capacities of the abovementioned U.S. ships.

Esra is 175 meter long and can carry as much as 20,000 tons. This is much more than the Kerch Bridge can afford according to Kiev’s story. The height of the bulker is 35 meters. So, if it sinks 8 meters deep, it will pass the bridge with no problems. Wuchow and Dokos have the same height. They can carry more just because they are 10-11 meter longer and 1.5-2 meter wider. But for the Kerch Bridge this is not a problem.

The only problem for a ship wishing to go through the Kerch Strait is the absence of cargo as empty ships have bigger sail height, which is obviously not the case with Esra.

Kiev was not absolutely wrong when warning that its Azov ports might degrade but the cause is not the Kerch Bridge. Simply, some of Mariupol’s customers have decided to use Black Sea ports. According to the Ukrainian Sea Port Authority, in Jan-Aug 2017, before the Kerch Bridge arch was erected, the Mariupol Port registered a 14.8% drop in its cargo traffic. During the same period, the Black Sea ports enlarged theirs by 5-35%.

For some vessels, the bridge will actually be too low but they have nothing to do with Ukraine. We mean the jack-up offshore drilling rigs of Crimea’s Chernomorneftegaz. Their legs are 60 meter high and will have to be cut and remounted for the rigs to be able to pass the Kerch Bridge. This is an expensive process, which means that there are no plans to prospect new oil or gas fields or to develop the existing ones in the Sea of Azov.

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