Relations between Ukraine and Russia worsen, again: Kerch Edition 2018

The long-standing crisis between the two nations resumed with new force on Sunday, when Russia seized and fired on three Ukrainian naval vessels for allegedly illegally entering Russian waters in the Black Sea.

By Prarthana Mitra

Despite pressure from the global community to call off the missile attack on Crimea, Russia is determined to go ahead with what they believe is the right response to Ukraine’s alleged provocation and “orchestration” of the Kerch crisis. The long-standing crisis between the two nations resumed with new force on Sunday, when Russia seized and fired on three Ukrainian naval vessels for allegedly illegally entering Russian waters in the Black Sea.

The Kerch Strait, that is the sole access to the Sea of Azov from the Black See, remains a contested site between the two nations despite it being the shared internal waters of both states according to their 2003 agreement.

The ships were reportedly trying to pass through the Russian-controlled Kerch Strait without notice and ignored calls to stop, claims that Ukraine has denied. Russia later decided to flex its military might by announcing the deployment of their fourth S-400 missile system in Crimea.

Why Ukraine is up in arms?

Some 11 Russian vessels surrounded two of Ukraine’s gunboats and one tugboat, “ramming them” before eventually opening fire, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told NBC, further asserting their right under international law, to use the Strait, which offers the only route to the Sea of Azov. 

According to NPR, keeping the Sea of Azov open is “a strategic and economic imperative” for Kiev, while, for the Kremlin, “the challenge posed by Ukraine’s tiny navy is almost entirely symbolic”. This explains the naval dimension that this 4-and-a-half-year-old conflict has suddenly taken.

The 24 Ukrainian sailors, including senior naval officers, have reportedly been detained in Crimea for 2 months pending trial, and could face up to 6 years in jail if proven guilty of illegally crossing the Russian border.

Anticipating further aggressive push from Moscow, Poroshenko responded to the threat of a “full-scale war” by imposing martial law for 30 days in Ukrainian regions adjoining Russia, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. He told media that his country is under the “extremely serious” threat of a land invasion, adding, “Russia will pay a huge price if they attack us”.

What did Kremlin say?

Moscow has refused to back down, threatening to escalate the conflict by deploying a new battalion of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems in Crimea. Although planned long before, the timing seems designed to send a message to Ukraine and the world that Russia takes its control over the peninsula very seriously.

Putin shrugged the maritime clash as a minor border issue, further berating Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, for manufacturing the event to boost his approval ratings.

“It was without doubt a provocation,” Putin said. “It was organised by the president ahead of the elections. The president is in fifth place ratings-wise and therefore had to do something. It was used as a pretext to introduce martial law.”

Bitter history on Crimean waters

Western governments have rallied behind Kiev, accusing Russia of illegally blocking access to the watery stretch of Azov used by both countries. Russia and Ukraine share the Sea of Azov as part of a 2003 agreement but Moscow claims complete control over the Kerch Strait, and its access to Ukraine’s ports since the 2014 annexation.

In repsonse to the worsening crisis, American President Donald Trump, in a rare departure from his usual pro-Putin stance, tweeted the cancellation of his scheduled meeting with Putin that was to be held on November 30 in Argentina, during the G20 summit.

This would not be the first time Russia used force without justification, though Sunday’s incident marks the first direct confrontration since 2015 in Kiev and Moscow’s long-running dispute over territories both nations believe to be theirs. Three years ago, rebel forces had briefly stormed the port city of Mariupol, which Poroshenko believes might happen again.

Ukraine vs. Russia: An overview

Russian-backed separatist elements in Ukraine constantly threaten an escalation of the conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people since Russian annexation of the peninsula in 2014.

In May 2018, Putin in fact inaugurated a 12-mile long bridge over the Kerch Strait. This bridge links Crimean peninsula to Russia and is a way for Russia to assert its sovereignty over the region.

It is, thus, becoming increasingly difficult to protect the 180-mile stretch between Crimea and east Ukraine where separatist presence has increased in recent years. Furthermore, 80% of Ukraine’s naval fleet was “wrecked” in 2014 in Crimea, which puts their military strength in a precarious position.

Russia, on the other hand, has tripled the number of tanks at a base near the Ukrainian border in the last two months, according to Poroshenko. The Kremlin has been funnelling heavy military hardware into Crimea since 2014, in a bid to fortify it and control the skies above the Black Sea. Reuters also noted that a Russian navy minesweeper ship was headed for Azov on Wednesday, further adding to the tension.

While Vox calls this the scariest escalation in years, some experts believe Moscow has been trying to disengage from the Crimean conflict, eager to leave Ukraine to deal with the separatists alone. At the same time, the military imbalance between the two former members of the USSR gives adequate cause for alarm in the event of a full-blown armed conflict.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius