Landsat satellite (false color) photo of Kerch Strait between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.

Overflown and Overblown: Crisis in the Kerch Strait

On 25 November 2018, three Ukrainian naval vessels and their twenty-three crew members were captured by Russia while sailing from Odessa en route to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. While the incident has naturally been highly controversial, fears that it might unfreeze the hybrid conflict between the two nations may be overblown. In this piece, Eamon Driscoll examines Ukraine’s newly-established state of emergency and the motives driving it.

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The 25 November incident took place in the Kerch Strait, which separates Crimea from the Russian mainland with the exception of the recently opened Crimea Bridge. The tensions between Russia and Ukraine, which have been slowly smouldering since January 2017, are drawing the world’s attention once more. The small flotilla of two gunboats and a tug was apparently fired upon, and a video clip tweeted by the Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov, shows the tug being rammed by a Russian coast guard vessel. Ukraine claimed that six of the twenty-three crew members were injured during the incident, while Russia claimed only three Ukrainians suffered injuries. 

It is clear that Russia violated international law in this incident; a 2003 treaty between the two countries designated the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait as being shared territorial waters, regardless of which party has sovereignty over the Crimean peninsula. By firing at, ramming, and then boarding the vessels, Russia has committed a clear act of aggression. And while it may seem that Ukraine willingly attempted to provoke a response from Russia to create an incident by sailing through the Kerch Strait, it is not the first time that has happened. In September 2018, two Ukrainian vessels followed a similar path from Odessa to Mariupol, and while they were not harassed, they were followed by thirteen Russian vessels and overflown by Russian aircraft. These vessels were the first to make port at Ukraine’s new naval base in Mariupol, and their passage surprised Russia. In this latest incident, Russia appears to have been more prepared for the convoy; the FSB closed off the sea route by placing a barge beneath the navigable portion of the bridge. 

The immediate result of the 25 November incident in Ukraine was profound; the Rada voted on the 26 November to institute martial law in ten of Ukraine’s twenty-five provinces on Ukraine’s border with Russia and on the littoral, reflecting the need for military preparedness in the face of what President Poroshenko declared to be an imminent Russian invasion. This period of martial law is expected to last for thirty days. Despite many anticipating the frozen conflict turning hot once again, and the potential for a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine by Russia, this is highly unlikely to happen. Russian President Vladmir Putin knows that the international reaction to the annexation of Crimea – which at least acknowledged the norms of international law in how it was conducted – was chilly at best. Even Russia’s two closest allies, Belarus and Kazakhstan, have not recognised Crimea as being Russian territory. Those two countries would feel particularly threatened if Russia were to go one step further and invade its neighbour. 

Moreover, the Russian population is assessed as having little interest in war; Putin’s approval ratings are lagging, but declaring active a new operational theatre beyond the Russian expeditionary force in Syria and its deniable-hybrid operations in Eastern Ukraine would not restore them. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, meanwhile, does stand to gain politically from conflict. By declaring martial law and positioning himself as a strong leader, boldly defending Ukraine against a hostile neighbour he may strengthen his own position in the months before the Ukrainian presidential election in March 2019. Polling for that election currently shows a lead for former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, political rival of Poroshenko. His critics have noticed this as well, forcing Poroshenko to limit the period of martial law to thirty days from the originally requested sixty, and to promise not to restrict political rights unless there is an invasion. 

The problem is, however, that the conflict in the Donbas is essentially a very limited invasion, and as martial law has not been declared throughout the entire conflict until now, Poroshenko’s critics are right to question his motives. Though this is the first overt act of aggression between Russia and Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea, there seems to be little substance to prognostications of a coming war in Europe. Any offensive action by Russia would only isolate it further from the rest of the world while simultaneously upsetting its already war-weary (and sanctions-weary) population and further strain its economy, which is still weak from the existing sanctions. Questions are being asked of the value of integrating Crimea when compared to the domestic cost of supporting the region and the international cost of Russia’s diplomatic reputation. On the other side, Ukraine too has little to gain from open war and much to lose. Its armed forces are assessed as being likely to be overwhelmed within a day, and appeals to NATO for assistance would likely go unanswered.

Ultimately, this incident will probably be forgotten as neither country has the appetite for war. Events being what they are, however, the situation could change in an instant off the back of a battlefield miscalculation in an increasingly contested space. Despite this, it appears increasingly likely that the most significant impact of this incident is the forced cancellation of the Trump-Putin meeting at the G20 in Argentina. Ukraine’s plans for a base in Mariupol will need to be adjusted given the new risks to seaborne access, and Russia will face censure at the UN for violating the 2003 treaty, but even firing upon a flotilla is not enough heat to unfreeze this conflict.

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Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Ilinois and postgraduate of Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States, which has furnished him with extensive experience on the topic of breakaway states. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: NASA