A brief, dangerous confrontation between Ukrainian and Russian armed forces around a disputed waterway appears unlikely to escalate into a major armed conflict. But it tells us a lot about Russia’s paranoia, the state of Ukraine’s democratic institutions, and the ability of the West to discourage and deter Russian aggression. None of these takeaways are encouraging.
The incident occurred on Sunday morning, when the Russian coast guard opened fire on three Ukrainian navy ships near the Kerch Strait, between the Crimean Peninsula and the Russian mainland, and seized them. Ukraine says six of its seamen were injured; Russia says it was only three. The Russians had prevented the Ukrainian ships from crossing the strait, which separates the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, by placing a large cargo vessel beneath a recently constructed bridge. Ukraine is now demanding the release of its sailors and vessels and is planning to impose martial law. Russia says the ships entered Russian territorial waters as a “provocation.” The incident is particularly notable in that it’s a rare incident of unambiguous violence between Ukrainian and Russian forces, rather than shadowy, deniable Russian “separatists” or “rebels.”
Tensions have been building around the Sea of Azov for months. Ukraine claims the right to free navigation under a 2003 treaty, which designated the sea as jointly controlled territory. That, of course, was before Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, giving Russia control of both sides of the narrow entrance to the sea. In 2016, Russia began construction of a controversial $3.7 billion bridge across the strait. The bridge was a political statement—physically connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland in defiance of most of the world’s refusal to recognize the peninsula as Russian territory—and it allowed the transfer of more Russian military equipment to Crimea. Just 33 meters high, it also had the effect of limiting the amount of cargo that could pass through the strait to the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk. Ships passing through the strait have been facing lengthy checks from Russian border guards, putting significant economic pressure on shipping companies. Ukraine has denounced this as an illegal blockade and has responded by increasing the number of small naval vessels in the area—a “mosquito fleet.” This build-up, combined with Russia’s paranoia about attacks on its flagship bridge, dramatically increased the risk of open confrontation, as happened Sunday.
(Beyond the naval confrontation, both countries have also been on edge this month since the Ukrainian Orthodox Church formally broke away from the control of Moscow, a decision that enraged Russian church leaders who have close ties to the Kremlin.)
There’s been some speculation that Russia’s increasingly aggressive posture toward Ukraine lately has something to do with President Vladimir Putin’s sagging poll numbers. It’s possible: Crimea, and conflict with the West, have been winning issues for the Russian president in the past. But Russia won’t have another presidential election until 2024, and in the meantime, Russia’s posture is likely to be self-defeating. The confrontation will probably result in more Western sanctions and will do little to improve Russia’s position in Ukraine.
“It’s not like Ukraine is going to collapse because of this blockade,” says Balazs Jarabik, a Ukraine specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “What’s interesting is that the blockade is really hurting [the port cities of] Mariupol and Berdyansk where there is still a lot of sympathy toward Russia. So from a political viewpoint, this is a suicidal tactic for Russia. They’re squeezing their own sympathizers.”
One president who does have to worry about the polls is Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko. He’s up for re-election in March, and polls show him trailing nemesis Yulia Tymoshenko. Poroshenko had initially planned to call for 60 days of martial law, which could have derailed the official beginning of the election campaign in December. It’s since been reduced to 30 days. Still, as Jarabik notes, his original proposal “really sends a bad message about Ukraine just four months before the elections. It doesn’t look good or bode well about Ukraine’s democratic institutions.” While Western countries have generally backed Ukraine’s government in its confrontation with Russia and Russian-backed separatists, Poroshenko’s martial law proposal won’t ease existing concerns about his government’s corruption and the role of far-right militias. The imposition of martial law is likely more of a symbolic gesture than anything else—there’s not much else Ukraine can do to punish Russia militarily—but there’s legitimate cause for concern about how the government might use its powers.
As for Western countries and NATO, their response to Russia’s aggression is likely to be limited to statements of condemnation and perhaps more sanctions. As the Guardian’s Julian Borger notes, the White House has been conspicuous in not issuing a statement about the Azov Sea incident, though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and outgoing U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have both condemned Russia’s actions. Instead, President Trump apparently thought Sunday would be a good time to issue one of his trademark twitter fusillades against Russia rival NATO.
In fairness, despite the messages coming out of the White House, the U.S. under Trump has been providing military aid to Ukraine, including some offensive weapons systems that the Obama administration declined to provide. Earlier this month, the U.S. slapped new sanctions on Russian officials over the annexation of Crimea.
Sunday’s flare-up, however, suggest that those actions have had little to no impact on Russian foreign policy.
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