The Kerch Standoff
On 25 Nov, Russia seized two Ukrainian gunboats and a tug that were sailing towards the Kerch Strait, to reach the Ukrainian port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.
The boats that had started off from Odessa, voyaging through the free waters of the Black Sea, had to pass the Kerch Strait from below the recently built Kerch Bridge that joins the Russian Krasnodar Oblast with Crimea, to reach the Mariupol Port. The Bridge not only gives Russia easy access to Crimea, it also enables Russian control on all vessel moving in and out of the Azov Sea.
Russia says that the boats were trespassing its territorial waters, while Ukraine says they were in international waters, perhaps because Russia considers Crimea as already annexed with it, whereas Ukraine thinks of the territory as occupied and still rightly belonging to Ukraine. The escalation and Pres. Poroshenko’s constant position that Russia plans to attack Ukraine, has prompted him to impose martial law on Ukraine’s border regions, initially for a month.
While Ukraine has put all the blame of the event on Russia, Putin has apprehended Poroshenko’s intentions of using this event for promoting anti-Russian feelings for the up-coming Ukraine Elections, due in March 2019. Yet, as Russia instigated the escalation by attacking the Ukrainian gunboats, there is a possibility that Russia wanted to spearhead a debate in Ukraine that could be conditioned with a little pre-poll social-media campaigning, like alleged in the Russiagate.
The closeness of the escalation to the G20 Summit is also of interest, wherein the media portrayed a jubilant Putin as opposed to a sorrow-faced Trump. Perhaps the allegations on Trump for colluding with the Kremlin to attain the 2016 presidency, have bereft him of the moral precedence previous US presidents enjoyed to act as mediators in global urgencies. Putin may have foreseen Trump’s declining moral precedence in the global theatre, and that creating a Ukraine Crisis just before the G20 would allow him to strengthen his global image while further weakening Trump’s.
The Kerch incident, however, is not an isolated event and Ukraine is not alone in making Russia aggrieved at its west, there is more to the history. After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, NATO started a campaign to dissemble the Warsaw Pact too, and in 2004, managed to scrape off seven states, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, adjacent to Russia’s western border, from the Warsaw Pact and succeeded in shifting them into NATO. On the same year, the Orange Revolution was staged in Ukraine, which led to the victory of pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko in the Jan 2005 elections. Now if Ukraine enters the NATO club too, Moscow could come in easy range of NATO’s nuclear missiles, when NATO already has strengthened its nuclear deterrence policy by making a nuclear halo around Moscow in its east European allies.
This staggering onslaught into Russia’s zone of influence to its west, forced Russia to redevise itself into a mode of aggression. Though Russia had promised in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, that it would not use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, the newly independent states – Russia has, since 2005, reverted to war-by-all-means to regain influence in Ukraine. For these reasons, in the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, that aimed at ousting of Pres. Yanukovych, Russia was ready to make its play by annexing Crimea and backing the Donbas War.
On the other hand, the intentions of NATO, in instigating Ukraine into a war with Russia can also not be completely excluded. NATO’s increasing exercises in states bordering Russia and installation of missile systems in them are constant signals of a looming attack on Russia. The US would love to start another war close to enemy-land if that would bring a defeat of Russia – a re-emerging power that has already cost it Syria and Iraq, and is trying to become the benevolent elder in Afghanistan.
Ukraine is also vital to Russia for economic reasons, not only is Russia its greatest trading partner, future economic prospects like oil/gas pipelines and the possibility of being covered by China’s expansive Belt and Road Initiative, make Ukraine all the more important for Russia. Ukraine comes in the track of BRI’s on-land Silk Road Economic Belt. Since 2014, China has already completed a dredging project in Yuzhny Port in Odessa and will start the same in Port of Chornomorsk.
China is installing wind and solar plants and is working on the 200km Odesa-Mykolaiv-Kherson highway. Though the EU poses as Ukraine’s champion and savior since the Orange Revolution, it has been slow in addressing the country’s economic crisis – with enough to deal with inside Europe, there is no chance for Ukraine to get any kind of economic bail-out from the EU – apprehending this Ukraine has went on to ask help from China! In February this year, Ukraine asked China for a US$7bn loan for infrastructure projects – but China is stepping in cautiously, without crossing over Russia’s interests therein.
Specially because, the 3 eastern oblasts, where Russia has influence, are BRI favorites. The Donetsk Oblast covers more than half of coal, steel, coke, cast iron and steel production in Ukraine. The oblast has the most developed transport infrastructure of the state and is home to two special economic zones. The Kherson Oblast is considered to be the ‘fruit basket’ of the country and the Zaporizhia Oblast is known for producing steel, aluminum, aircraft engines, automobiles, transformers for substations, and other heavy industry goods. These 3 oblasts line the Azov Sea, and the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk are vital to the running of these economic centers.
Moreover, though Ukraine and its western friends are calling for more sanctions on Russia, Europe seems reluctant on this. Yet Russia does dread NATO’s reach in the Black Sea, especially after NATO activities like the ‘Sea Breeze 2017 anti-submarine warfare exercise, which took place in the Black Sea in July 2017 and was co-hosted by Ukraine and the United States with the participation of 16 NATO and NATO partner states’.
Russia’s naval buildup in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea started after 2014. In line with the Black Sea Fleet 2020 modernization plan, Black Sea has or will be receiving ‘six new Project 636.3 (Improved Kilo) diesel submarines… three Admiral Grigorovich class frigates… six 1300-ton Project 22160 Vasily Bykov-class corvettes… four 6 Kalibr-armed Project 21631 Buyan-M class 950-ton small missile ships… whereas Crimea is to be laced with ‘two Black Sea Fleet coastal defense brigades’. The Black Sea is Russia’s major route to the Mediterranean, where it connects with the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, therefore Russia sees both the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea as the lifeline to their trade, security and security alliances with the wider world.
Only 27years old, Ukraine is highly dependent on the Black Sea for international trade. Before 2004 the Black Sea was a peaceful water, where NATO was always welcomed, but since EU’s interventions in Ukraine, things have changed. In the growing air of antagonism, Russia would want to gain absolute control of the Azov Sea, moving forward to nullifying NATO’s naval presence in the Black Sea region.
Ukraine has to weigh its options between a Russia that is closer and growing stronger – and an EU that is divided and growing weaker. Ukraine’s call for EU sanctions against Russia, specially for blocking the Nord Stream is against Germany’s aspirations of receiving much needed energy from Russia. Once Nord Stream is running, Germany and other European states receiving Russian gas will become more subjugate to their needs for energy and heat.
After the event, Pres. Poroshenko said, ‘Germany is one of our closest allies and we hope that states within NATO are now ready to relocate naval ships to the Sea of Azov in order to assist Ukraine and provide security’. The question is, would NATO be willing to take Russia head-on in its own territory, and does Russia have friends around the regions that would jump in, making it another international war.
A balanced approach from Ukraine’s side has perhaps been hampered by Poroshenko’s fear of losing the coming elections. Poroshenko must understand that the US/NATO have yet to demonstrate any reassuring accomplishments all their wars in the post-Cold War era, usually leaving those they came to save in much instability and chaos. Now perhaps is not the right time to settle scores with Russia, but a time for diplomatically taking, what the EU has to offer, and of allowing Ukraine a share from the fruits of the BRI, while still remaining under Russia’s blessings.
Previously Published at Maritime Study Forum