Why Russia’s Kerch Strait Clashes With Ukraine Matter

Image by European Space Agency
Kerch Strait Bridge, 2018

In a move to assert its authority, Russia closed the Strait of Kerch which links the Azov sea with the rest of the Black Sea and a naval confrontation with Ukraine ensued. Three Ukrainian naval vessels were involved in clashes with Russia in an unprecedented incident that will raise tensions between Moscow and Kiev.

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This is unprecedented and important. It must be seen in light of Russia’s growing attempt to assert itself globally and is part of Moscow’s strategy to show that it is not afraid to use military force. Over the last decade Russia has increasingly illustrated this concept. In Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014 and then in Syria in 2015. But it’s not just military action that Russia carries out. It is also economic action as I covered in the TurkStream deal with Turkey. And Russia is also re-asserting itself in the Balkans, and seeking a role in the continuing Kosovo dispute. Russia has also sent an advanced version of its S-300 to bolster Syria and is seeking to sell its S-400 to Turkey and other countries. Each step of the way Moscow wants to show a win and it wants to show that its military might is back. Even if this isn’t always the actual case, the perception must be that Moscow won.

Sergei Aksyonov, the head of Crimea’s local government, an area that was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014, claimed western powers were behind Ukrainian naval moves on November 25. He asserted that “Ukrainian warships illegally crossed Russia’s borders.” Three Ukrainian ships set off in the morning to pass the Kerch strait and reach Mariupol, a port on the Sea of Azov. Russia claimed the ships were entering Russia’s territorial waters and carrying out “dangerous” actions. Russia blames Ukraine for what happened, unsurprisingly.

From Ukraine’s perspective the Russian annexation of Crimea is not recognized and Ukraine should be able to sail ships through the strait to its ports, otherwise Russia could simply close off the Sea of Azov whenever it likes. An article The Jamestown Foundation in early November claimed that Russia was carrying out “purposefully time-consuming inspections on merchant vessels travelling to and from Ukraine’s Azov Sea ports.” 683 vessels had been boarded in six months and Ukraine claimed it was losing millions of dollars.

The three Ukrainian ships were named the Berdyansk, Nikopol and Yani Kapu. The first two ships were relatively modern Gurza class artillery patrol boats which have two main guns and a grenade launcher. The third ship was a Ukrainian tugboat. According to Kyiv Post the tugboat was rammed by the Russians and all three ships were immobilized after an exchange of fire and taken over by Russian forces. If these details are correct, this is a humiliating defeat at sea for Ukraine. According to local reports Ukraine has raised the alert level of its forces in Donetsk, a frontline where Ukraine is fighting Russian-backed separatists but where there is supposed to be a ceasefire. Video showed a Russian coastguard vessel, towering over the tug boat, before ramming it. Russia also flew two Su-24 bombers over a bridge linking Crimea with the mainland. It appears Russia waited until nightfall to board the Ukrainian artillery boats.

All of this is designed as a show of force. There is an existing conflict in Donetsk, which began when the Russian-backed President of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev in 2014 and separatists took up arms in the east. Ukraine and Russia have been fighting a kind of proxy war since then in Donetsk, with European powers mostly supporting Ukraine.

It is seen as part of Russia’s larger grand strategy of asserting itself, both in the Caucuses, the Balkans, and in Syria and the Middle East. This has often included both political, economic and military muscle, going hand in hand. In Crimea Russia wants to send a message to Europe that this is Russian territory and that Ukraine’s small navy won’t be able to navigate the Kerch strait with Moscow’s approval.

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Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based at Sevastopol and this is a key strategic interest for Moscow. The clashes over the straits come the same day Russian bombers in Syria struck Syrian rebels it accused of firing mortars on Aleppo yesterday. In both cases Russia’s military might is being illustrated, and Moscow will not back down either from its support for the Syrian regime or over Crimea. This will be a test for Ukraine, and also for its supporters in Europe and in Washington. Rights to navigation is a key concept, but whether Ukraine will force the straits issue again remains to be seen, especially after having three of its ships detained.

Ukraine’s leadership held a meeting of its security officials after the clashes to assess what to do next. Ukraine has been modernizing its army in the last several years. This is costly for a country in an economic crises. It has received support from the US and has deployed Javelin anti-tank missiles this year. But Ukraine would have trouble contesting Russia at sea, it’s fleet is small and old with several ships seized by Russia in 2014. The EU has said “We expect Russia to restore freedom of passage at the Kerch strait and urge all to act with utmost restraint to de-escalate the situation immediately.” But the EU likely won’t do anything. Ukraine wants the UN Security Council to meet, and called for it to do so at 11pm on Nov. 25.

Other developments:
– NATO releases a statement

-Ukrainian sailors were wounded

– Ukraine may declare marshal law or consider other measures

-RT reports what is already known, but appears to admit that Russia shot at and seized the ships, claiming they entered its territorial waters

-Ukrainian protesters at Russian consulate

-Sirens and civil defense test

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