Dire Straits: conflict between Russia and Ukraine

Why did Russia seize three Ukrainian naval vessels last week?

by Stefan Karlo Rajic, 03/12/2018

Note: words in italics and square brackets have been inserted by the editor for those unfamiliar with some Ukrainian and Russian terminology or politicians.

President Poroshenko
President Poroshenko

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the Kerch straits are a result of simmering tensions around the Crimea between the two states since 2014. After successfully annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Russia has slowly but steadily begun a process of militarization by accumulating sea and land equipment, along with developing infrastructure.[1] Most notably, Russia began building a highway in late 2014 and completed in mid-2018 which joined Russia with the Crimea, called the Kerch bridge.[2] The bridge crosses over the Kerch Strait, which is the only entrance to and from the Azov sea, which is nestled between the eastern side of Crimea (closest city Kerch), southern Ukraine (Mariupol), and southern Russia (Krasnodar). According to a 2003 treaty between Ukraine and Russia, the Azov Sea and Kerch strait represent mutual territorial waters for both states.[3] The war in Donbas and annexation of the Crimea has complicated the realities on the ground, with Russia increasing its grip on the region. Reports earlier this year indicated that Russia had been increasing pressure on the Azov Sea region, with regular detention of Ukrainian shipping vessels.[4] Ukraine then began warning about further escalation in the Azov Sea region due to a de facto blockade on Ukrainian shipping through the Kerch Straits.[5] Owing to the escalations by Russia in the sea, along with economic blockade, harassment and even fears of a possible invasion,[6] Ukraine decided to start constructing a naval base near Berdyansk.[7] Russia’s aggression in the Azov Sea region has been in the making for nearly twelve months.

The Crimea and its surrounds have mostly been ignored by western analysts since 2014 due to the pressing issue of the Donbas where there are regular daily skirmishes between Russian-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk peoples’ armies and Ukraine’s armed forces. Thus, Russia’s aggression in the Kerch strait has caught many off-guard.

This article hopes to answer two questions surrounding Russia’s aggression against Ukraine: Why now? Moreover, what comes next?

The Incident

The morning of November 25th saw three Ukrainian vessels beginning a journey across the Black Sea from Ukraine’s port city of Odesa to Mariupol. In the afternoon of November 25th, a Russian vessel rammed a Ukrainian tugboat en route in the strait, and another two Russian vessels fired upon two Ukrainian gunboats making passage through to the Azov Sea. Russian special forces boarded the vessels, capturing them along with their crew.

Russia claims it was merely defending its territorial waters. However, the story is far from this clear-cut. Firstly, if the incident transpired in or near the Kerch Strait, Russia would have no claim to defend its territorial waters, as its use is mediated by a 2003 agreement. Secondly, the actual location of the incident has been revealed as taking place in the international waters of the Black Sea, which Russia has no right to defend. In either case, Russia is signaling to Ukraine and the international community that it will be setting the rules in and around the Crimea; it will define what its territorial waters are. Furthermore, the incident confirms that has already been a slow erosion of Ukraine’s ability to access and administer its rights in and around Kerch and the Azov sea.[8] Lastly, and most significantly, the Kerch incident is the first open attack on Ukrainian military by Russia, no little green men, no civil defense forces or separatist fronts are required. The openness of the attack is perhaps the most significant challenge Russia has directly posed to Ukraine and the West, now that a significant red line has been breached by openly attacking Ukrainian military assets. Since the attack, the Ukrainian servicemen abroad the vessels have been arrested and tried for breaching Russia’s border.[9] They have since been transferred from Crimea to Moscow and are serving 2-month pre-trial sentences.[10]

Why Now?

The most pressing question surrounding the Kerch incident is “why now?” The undeclared war between Ukraine and Russia has been ongoing since 2014 with no drastic changes since 2015. Kerch is a new development which drastically alters the dimensions for analyzing the war: Russia has openly attacked Ukraine, violated international law and bilateral treaties, and has not masked the fact. There are four competing theories on the origins of the Kerch aggression. The first theory believes that Kerch was engineered by Putin to allay his diminishing popularity at home. The second states that Putin engineered the aggression to help create a more vocal pro-Moscow bloc in Ukraine’s domestic politics. Third, the cynical theory which proposes that [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko planned on Russian aggression in order to create martial law at home due to his low popularity and poor election chances in March 2019. Lastly, Moscow deliberately sought to bait Ukraine into a disproportional response from its attack, in order to escalate to a full invasion or at least divide western support for Ukraine against Russia.

(1) Domestic troubles.

Putin’s popularity has dropped quite significantly since being re-elected in 2018. His popularity is sitting roughly at the same level before the annexation of the Crimea. This is due to Putin’s government introducing new pension reforms that were widely unpopular and stirred protests across Russia, which led to the erosion of trust in Putin’s regime.[11] Proponents of the domestic explanation believe that Putin engineered the Kerch aggression to allay domestic troubles and harness Russians’ growing mistrust of Ukrainians and patriotism associated with the “re-unification” of Crimea.

This theory greatly simplifies the internal dynamics of Russia. Firstly, potential wars and aggression are a costly and risky strategy just to boost popularity in an authoritarian state. Putin has vast resources at his disposal to create a war or perceived aggression in the imagination of the Russian people rather than initiating a new round of hostilities between himself and the West. Putin is annoyed by sanctions.[12] Thus he would not risk a temporary boost in popularity for a new round of sanctions.

(2) Pre-election strategy.
Ukraine’s presidential election is in March 2019, and a pivotal moment for Ukraine’s foreign policy, and Russia’s perceived interests in the state. The Kerch incident provides more leverage to Putin’s preferred candidate in [Ukrainian lawyer Victor] Medvedchuk, godfather to Putin’s daughter. Medvedchuk has already begun campaigning on a platform of creating peace through his personal contact with Russia’s president.[13] With a demonstration of blatant strength, Putin creates more opportunities for Medvedchuk to create a bloc of those opposed to Ukraine’s continued resistance to Russia’s aggression and settling the conflict on terms favorable to Russia.

This theory also makes sense for Putin. Medvedchuk is very much in favor of reaching a deal favorable to Russia – ignoring the Crimea and allowing the Donbas separatist republics to be reintegrated to Ukraine on Russia’s terms. However, he has not made any significant statements regarding Kerch a week after.

(3) Cynicism.
The last theory is being promoted predominantly by the Kremlin. Firstly, the Kremlin alleges that Ukraine deliberately sent its boats across Kerch to provoke a crisis in order to increase sanctions against Russia by Ukraine and the West.[14] Secondly, Ukraine engineered the Kerch incident in order to bring in martial law.[15] Poroshenko is very unpopular in current polling, and martial law provides the means to suppress domestic criticism of his government, and indefinitely delay elections. However, the Verkhovna Rada [the Ukrainian parliament] made Poroshenko compromise on the terms of the martial law, reducing its length to thirty days and coverage to only those oblasts [administrative districts]  directly threatened by Russia’s military presence, ten overall.[16]

Ukraine has already recognized Russia as an aggressor in its Donbas reintegration law earlier this year,[17] and while Russia’s aggression in Kerch is unprecedented, what would stop Poroshenko from enacting martial law earlier under the already existing conflict in Donbas? After all, most of the cynics believe that Poroshenko is just as bad as Putin – or trying to be at least. International relations at its base is governed by power dynamics, and western concerns and sanctions do not mitigate the fact that Russia has accumulated military hardware on the border. Martial law squares the circle for Ukraine: (1) it internally consolidates Ukraine’s ability to defend itself without relying on what may be non-existent western support; (2) it demonstrates to Russia that Ukraine is prepared to defend itself and place its security as a priority; (3) it signals that Ukraine will not kowtow to escalatory pressure from Moscow. Cynics cannot explain why Poroshenko waited now and why martial law was so transparently enacted; enacting the law so close to the election may make him more unpopular in those oblasts who had to suffer increased police and military presence. Lastly, any actual interference with Ukraine’s election cycle would be met with international criticism, which would harm Poroshenko further if he was to extend martial law.

(4) Bait.
The second theory postulates that Russia engineered the Kerch aggression to bait Ukraine into escalating aggression in order to justify an invasion into south-east Ukraine. The “Novorossiya” project [Literally ‘New Russia’ -a tsarist concept of south-eastern Ukraine from the 19th century] was abandoned in 2015 after Russia realized that Ukraine had an army capable of resisting its hybrid war tactics.[18] In reality, the separatists would be not exist had Russia not supported them in shelling Ukraine’s positions on the border,[19] along with assistance in the Ilovaisk and Debaltseve battles.[20] The bait theory proposes that the taproot of Russia’s aggression in Kerch was an attempt to create a casus belli for an invasion to finally create Novorossiya and a land-bridge to the Crimea. There is some evidence for this: firstly, the SBU [the Ukrainian Intelligence Service – Ed] intercepted Russian communications during the crisis and revealed the Kremlin’s direct role in orchestrating the aggression.[21] Second, Russia has been accumulating military hardware on the border with Ukraine, primarily tanks and aircraft.[22] This would suggest that it was not a local military issue handled by the military in the Crimea, but a part of the Kremlin’s strategy toward Ukraine.

Russia controls how and when aggression can escalate in both theatres of conflict with Ukraine. It is well aware of the realities; Ukraine has no nuclear deterrent and a conventional army that could not resist a direct and open conflict with Russian forces if a full-scale invasion was to take place. However, Russia lacks a legitimate means to escalate the war. In the Donbas, there are separatists whom Russia only diplomatically supports. If Russia were to successfully initiate a conflict under the guise of protecting itself and trigger conflict with Ukraine, it would undoubtedly win with enough diplomatic cover to parry western calls for restraint. That is the doomsday scenario. The more realistic scenario would have been expecting Ukraine to escalate the situation by returning fire or increasing pressure in the Donbas. The result would see Ukraine being admonished by its western partners such as the EU and USA, and Russia driving a diplomatic wedge to undermine their solidarity. However, the amassment of military hardware on Ukraine’s borders would obviously make Ukrainian leaders sensitive to any new hostilities, which the Kerch aggression most definitely was.

What’s Next?

Ultimately the West will never respond to Russia in a symmetrical manner. War is just not an option. The West values the international rules-based order, but it not willing to deploy any measures further than “deep concerns”, “calls for dialogue” and sanctions. Nevertheless, the aftermath of the Kerch incident saw a delayed response from the West.[23] This could have been a trigger for the martial law in Ukraine, whose leaders were most likely expecting a far louder and non-equivocal response to new Russian aggression.[24] One thing that hampers Russia from further exercising its military superiority in Ukraine is the lack of a diplomatic cover to escalate aggression. Kerch may have been one such probe to coax a Ukrainian overreaction. Ukraine itself has no means of resolving the conflict unless it regains control of the Donbas and Crimea, the latter of which is a non-negotiable to Putin’s regime. Overall, given the dynamics governing all three sides in the conflict, not much will change. However, Ukraine now will be even more sensitive to Russian aggression – real or perceived. Expect it to act more so on the way to upcoming elections in March 2019. From Russia, expect more challenges probing Ukraine’s levelheadedness and western support.


Stefan K Rajic  recently completed his master’s in international relations focusing on Ukraine and Russia, and will be commencing a PhD in 2019

[1] https://www.ukrinform.net/rubric-defense/2573059-militarization-of-crimea-infographics.html

[2] https://www.rferl.org/a/aerial-images-show-extent-of-kerch-strait-bridge-construction-updated/28675651.html

[3] http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/30030

[4] http://uawire.org/100-ukrainian-ships-detained-by-russia-in-sea-of-azov-since-april

[5] https://www.unian.info/politics/10115600-ukrainian-mp-russia-begins-de-facto-blockade-of-ukraine-s-azov-sea-ports.html

[6] https://www.unian.info/politics/10234602-russia-preparing-for-possible-landing-operations-along-azov-and-odesa-coast-expert.html

[7] https://www.unian.info/politics/10262727-ukraine-to-create-azov-naval-base-by-year-end.html

[8] https://www.kyivpost.com/ukraine-politics/ukraine-loses-control-of-azov-sea-to-russia.html

[9] http://khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1543278601

[10] http://uawire.org/russia-transferred-detained-ukrainian-sailors-to-moscow

[11] https://carnegie.ru/commentary/77702

[12] https://tass.ru/politika/5845396

[13] https://112.international/interview/viktor-medvedchuk-big-interview-with-a-big-politician-31582.html

[14] http://www.mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3420678?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_cKNonkJE02Bw&_101_INSTANCE_cKNonkJE02Bw_languageId=en_GB

[15] http://tass.com/world/1033229

[16] https://en.hromadske.ua/posts/ukraine-declares-martial-law

[17] https://www.unian.info/politics/10014770-poroshenko-enacts-law-on-re-integration-of-donbas.html

[18] http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/05/29/why-kremlin-is-shutting-down-novorossiya-project/i96u

[19] https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2015/02/17/origin-of-artillery-attacks/

[20] https://rusi.org/publication/briefing-papers/russian-forces-ukraine

[21] https://www.unian.info/war/10353855-ukraine-intercepts-radio-comms-of-russian-coast-guards-with-command-amid-attack-on-ukraine-navy-boats-transcript.html

[22] https://www.ukrinform.ua/rubric-ato/2587985-rosia-pidtagnula-do-kordonu-z-ukrainou-500-bojovih-litakiv-skibickij.html & https://news.sky.com/story/ukraine-accuses-russia-of-putting-tanks-on-border-11567237

[23] https://www.unian.info/politics/10352025-west-slow-with-response-to-russian-aggression-ukrainian-mp.html

[24] https://www.politico.eu/article/ukraine-russia-putin-is-in-control/



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