Report

Putin Pushes Russia-Ukraine Tensions to a Four-Year High

By firing on and seizing Ukrainian vessels, Moscow has thrown the West into a quandary: add sanctions, send in NATO, or hope for a de-escalation?

Two of the Ukrainian vessels seized by Russia on Sunday pictured near Kerch, Crimea on Nov. 26. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Two of the Ukrainian vessels seized by Russia on Sunday pictured near Kerch, Crimea on Nov. 26. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia’s violent escalation of tensions with Ukraine over access to waters near the Crimean peninsula is potentially the most serious challenge to Kiev and the West—especially to Washington—since Russia annexed Crimea more than four years ago.

The maritime showdown could spark political uncertainty in Ukraine, which on Monday voted to impose martial law for 30 days to deal with the crisis. Russia’s aggressive behavior also sent the European Union, United Nations, and NATO scrambling for a response, raising the prospect of a beefed-up Western naval presence in the Black Sea and additional economic sanctions on Russia.

On Sunday, in what is thought to be the first time the Russian military has admitted directly opening fire on its Ukrainian counterparts in four years of war, Russian ships rammed and fired on a convoy headed into the Sea of Azov, the small body of water between the Crimean peninsula and southern Ukraine. Six Ukrainian sailors were wounded, and Russia detained two gunboats and a tugboat. It was the sharpest escalation since Moscow this spring began harassing and detaining hundreds of Ukrainian ships transiting the chokepoint of the Kerch Strait, which Russia controls thanks to the completion of Europe’s longest bridge in May.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry denounced what it called Russia’s provocations, saying that Moscow had “crossed the red line” by interfering with free navigation. Moscow, for its part, accused Kiev of provoking the incident to enable fresh Western sanctions on Russia.

“I think this could be an inflection point, where things get much more violent” between Russia and Ukraine, said Jeffrey Edmonds, a research scientist at CNA and former Russia director on the National Security Council.

While Canada, the United Kingdom, and a chorus of other European countries condemned Russia’s action, the U.S. response was muted until U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley railed against Russia at an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on Monday. “It is an arrogant act that the international community must condemn and will never accept,” she said.

But top Democratic lawmakers were irked that U.S. President Donald Trump had not issued any statement on it by Monday.

“At this precarious time, the U.S. cannot afford a weak performance by President Trump at the G20, like we saw in Helsinki. Mr. President, this is your opportunity to finally show American leadership in defense of our principles and our close allies across Europe,” said Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement on Monday. Menendez referred to Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland in July, in which Trump sided with Putin over U.S. intelligence assessments on election meddling, infuriating many members of Congress and national security professionals.

Late Monday, the State Department released a statement expressing its “deep concern” over the incident, and calling on Russia to return the seized vessels and crewmen and respect Ukraine’s access to territorial waters. The statement, in the name of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, also called on “both parties to exercise restraint and abide by their international obligations and commitments.”

“It’s important for the West to send a very sharp message to Russia that if you don’t stop this, there will be consequences,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine now at the Brookings Institution. “It’s a test of the West, and Washington should have responded” immediately after the incident, he said.

Russia’s objectives in blocking access to the Sea of Azov are several, and are part of Moscow’s deliberate efforts to consolidate its hold over Crimea and ring-fence much of the Black Sea, a Russian strategic obsession since the late 17th century.

By interdicting ships headed for Ukrainian ports such as Mariupol and Berdyansk (where Ukraine just started building a naval base), Russia has cost Ukraine millions of dollars in economic losses. Further weakening southern Ukraine fits Moscow’s longer-term goal of destabilizing its smaller neighbor, especially ahead of Ukraine’s presidential election due in March.

“There’s a political message about the economic vulnerability of those ports on the Sea of Azov” that serve as important export terminals for Ukraine, Pifer said. “It’s designed to signal to Ukraine that you’re still vulnerable and there’s not much you can do about it.”

Longer term, some see Russia angling to control a land corridor between Russia and the annexed Crimean peninsula, possibly even extending control as far west as Transnistria, the breakaway region of Moldova. “If the West’s reaction is too weak, the idea is to cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea and leave it a rump state,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Russia may also be seeking to provoke Ukraine into a military response; given the overwhelming disparity between Ukraine’s paltry forces and Russia’s numerous naval forces in and around the Sea of Azov, it would be a way to deal Kiev a crushing blow if Ukraine takes the bait. It’s clear the Ukrainian side is outflanked and outgunned by the Russian side,” said Alina Polyakova, an expert on Russia and Ukraine at the Brookings Institution.

At any rate, Russia has already roiled Ukrainian politics just months ahead of an election in which the unpopular President Petro Poroshenko is trailing in the polls. On Monday, the Ukrainian parliament approved Poroshenko’s request for a 30-day martial law to deal with the increased threat from Russia, and Poroshenko said that next year’s presidential election would continue as planned.

On Monday, the European Union, NATO, and the United Nations all convened separate meetings to consider how to respond to Russia’s latest move. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg condemned Russia, saying its militarization of Crimea and the Sea of Azov “poses further threats to Ukraine’s independence” and called on Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors and ships it seized on Sunday, while European Council President Donald Tusk said that “Europe will stand united in support of Ukraine.”

Some analysts urged caution. Mark Galeotti, a senior non-resident fellow at Prague’s Institute of International Relations, said that neither Moscow or Kiev would look to significantly escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine. “Kiev can’t really can’t escalate it, Moscow doesn’t want to escalate it. That doesn’t mean that a bad decision on either side can’t escalate it, but that’s not the intent.”

Galeotti said the building of the Kerch bridge from the Crimean peninsula to Russia has been a double-edged sword for Moscow and its role in the Sea of Azov. On the one hand, it has made it easier for Russia to block off access to the body of water as it did temporarily yesterday. But there is also real paranoia in Moscow about the security of the bridge; extraordinary measures have been put in place to protect it, including a system of underwater drones to monitor for suspicious activity and specially trained divers.

As a result, Galeotti said, protecting the bridge has created an internal logic in Moscow to increase its maritime dominance. “I think it’s more likely that they’re generally trying to establish that the Azov Sea is de facto Russia territorial waters. By slowly ratcheting up, two steps forward and one step back, they bring it to the point where in effect, it’s theirs.”

Legally, the West is in a tricky situation when it comes to responding to Russia’s actions. According to the terms of a bilateral 2003 treaty, Ukraine and Russia consider the Sea of Azov as internal waters not subject to international laws of the sea. That technically limits the ability of outside countries to send ships through the Kerch Strait and into the Sea of Azov. Yet Russia itself has violated the bilateral agreement by restricting Ukraine’s access. Ukraine has since 2016 sought international mediation in the maritime dispute, bringing a complaint against Russia before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

Russia’s military buildup in the Sea of Azov and its efforts to restrict maritime access are more than just saber rattling, said Kurt Volker, U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, in a recent interview with Foreign Policy. It’s a logical consequence of Moscow’s insistence that the waters around Crimea are Russian, not international seas. Much as China is doing in the South China Sea—bullying smaller neighbors and claiming control of international waters in apparent violation of international law—Russia is trying to write new rules of the road.

“Because Russia claims to have annexed Crimea, it is then claiming that some of these waters are Russian territory waters, and is also treating the Azov Sea as an inland sea, which is in contravention of international law and international norms about access to the Azov Sea,” Volker told FP last week.

The Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov don’t have the economic or even strategic importance that the Baltic or the South China Sea have for international commerce. But that doesn’t mean that Washington or Brussels should let Russia’s behavior go unchecked, experts said. “They’re trying to establish a new norm, and once you let a norm settle in, it is incredibly hard to reverse,” Edmonds said. “It sets a very dangerous maritime precedent.”

One possible response to Russia’s behavior could be a stronger NATO naval presence in the Black Sea. Beginning in 2016, NATO formally ramped up its naval posture there, and in 2017 carried out a big naval exercise. But there is less unity among NATO members in the Black Sea than in other contested regions, such as the Baltic Sea, potentially making a concerted response more difficult.

Another likely outcome of the Kerch crisis will be renewed calls for additional economic sanctions on Russia, which could raise the costs to Russia of its foreign-policy adventurism. The United States could use existing authorities to impose new sanctions on Russia without passing fresh legislation, said Daniel Fried, a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. Possible targets could be Russian sovereign debt or a large state-owned bank. Fried said that while a robust response should be prepared, the United States shouldn’t be too quick to pull the trigger without first giving Moscow a chance to back down. “The problem with moving too fast on sanctions is, if you do it and then they back down, you’re sort of obligated to remove the sanctions,” he said.

The ultimate irony for Russia is that its efforts to bring Ukraine closer to Moscow in the last five years seem to have backfired—and likely will continue to do so in light of the pressure brought to bear by the maritime harassment.

“Russia wants to have a Ukraine that is more Russia-friendly, part of a greater Russian-led civilization, and the fact is that they have alienated Ukraine,” Volker said. “They’re an even more pro-Western, more pro-NATO, more anti-Russian Ukraine than has ever existed in history.”

This article was updated to include a statement from the State Department.

Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s global geoeconomics correspondent. @KFJ_FP

Amy Mackinnon is a reporter at Foreign Policy@ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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