In the rear, an artilleryman firmly grips the handles of a single heavy machine gun bolted to the rear, scanning the horizon carefully for any threat.
An hour after the coastal patrol had started, in rough seas about 5 nautical miles off the coast of Ukraine, a crackling radio message passed through the dull hum of diesel engines and the lightly armed vessel suddenly stepped in.
“Boat 23 is boat 444,” said a stern Russian voice over the airwaves.
“We remind you to keep a safe distance,” warns the operator.
Up front, a Russian coastal protection vessel looms on the horizon, a floating steel guardian of the growing naval force that congregates in the seas beyond.
The message is clear: go no further.
“If we don’t turn around, there will be problems,” said Cmdr. Nikolay Levitskiy of the Ukrainian Maritime Guard.
The Russian Defense Ministry does not hide what these problems could imply. In his muscular show of naval strength in one of the world’s smallest seas, he posted dramatic images of ships launching barrages of missiles howling through the waves.
The Kremlin insists that this is just a naval exercise, an exercise that poses no threat to anyone. He talks about the creation of a flotilla of 15 ships leaving from the landlocked Caspian Sea via a 100 km canal with 13 locks to the Black Sea basin.
But Ukrainian military officials, just a few miles away, are watching the build-up with concern.
“In the last two weeks it has become more dangerous because the Russian Federation has sent several landing ships from the Baltic and North Seas,” said Captain Roman Goncharenko of the Ukrainian navy in Mariupol.
“Officially, these are exercises. But these ships are still there in this area, and in our view it can be dangerous,” he told CNN from the Soviet-era Donbass Bridge, a ship rusty search and rescue boat, built in 1969 and moored. in the port city.
Accumulation on land and sea
Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, supported by armored columns, have been spotted heading towards eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed rebels are waging a bitter separatist war with government forces in which thousands of people are dead.
US Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Monday that there were “still quite a bit” of Russian forces along the border with Ukraine and in the Crimea.
Ukraine says the aggression now violates international law by restricting access to the Sea of Azov, which Russia and Ukraine agreed to share in a 2003 deal.
Ukrainian officials say commercial shipping along a key route to the east faces additional checks and delays, but Russia insists the traffic is not prohibited.
This is not the first time that Russia has exercised its naval power towards Ukraine. In 2018, the Russian Coast Guard struck a Ukrainian tugboat in the region. Russian ships fired at Ukrainian Navy ships, seizing three and detaining 24 sailors. Both sides accused the other of violating the laws of the sea.
“ Creeping occupation ”
The strain on the rough waters of the Sea of Azov is also visible on land. In Mariupol, a dozen Ukrainian Marines, dressed in combat fatigues and balaclavas, practice maneuvers, patrol the port with rifles in hand, conducting what they say are anti-sabotage exercises.
Ukrainian navy officials say they have no choice but to plan for a possible Russian assault and that more ground forces are waiting to be deployed in the event of an attack.
They are already calling Russian action on the Sea of Azov a “creeping occupation” of the region.
“Russian ships are behaving more and more aggressively, entering restricted areas, or places where they should have permission from Ukrainian authorities,” said Levitskiy, the patrol vessel’s commander.
After the Ukrainian Coast Guard vessel was warned by the Russian vessel to come too close, CNN asked it what would happen if we didn’t turn around. The helmsman shouted: “It would be very dangerous.”
Levitskiy looked at him disapprovingly and retorted, saying only, “It might not be good.”
CNN’s Zahra Ullah contributed to this story.