The Kerch Straits Incident

I have refrained from commenting on November 25’s incident in which Russian naval vessels fired on and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels for, according to the Russian government, violating Russian territorial waters. The editors of The Economist remark:

The crisis did not emerge from out of the blue. It is the culmination of six months of growing Russian pressure on Ukraine. Having in 2004 annexed Crimea, Russia is now restricting access from Ukraine’s eastern ports to the Black Sea, and thence to the Mediterranean and the world.

To get to the Black Sea, ships must pass through the Kerch Strait (see map). On May 16th Russia opened a bridge across the strait that is too low for large ships. It also moved five naval vessels from the Caspian to the Sea of Azov. Russia’s coastguard has since then detained scores of Ukrainian and foreign merchant ships—more than 140 between May and August—for hours and even days at a time, in what amounts to an undeclared blockade.

An agreement between Russia and Ukraine in 2003, before Ukraine tried to break away from Russia’s sphere of influence, established joint control of the Sea of Azov. Now both sides of the strait that controls access to it are held by Russia. Immediately after the latest clash, Russia briefly parked a tanker across the waterway, to remind Ukrainians what Vladimir Putin’s promises are worth. Ukrainians fear that his next move will be to take control of the whole of the Sea of Azov—a huge strategic prize—and further endanger the port of Mariupol, Ukraine’s third largest.

The detentions, delays and uncertainty have already strangled eastern Ukrainian ports like Mariupol and Berdyansk. The new bridge has bottled up 144 Ukrainian ships that are too tall to slip under its 33-metre structure. Shipping in and out of Mariupol has fallen by a quarter.

Ukraine cannot fight back. It lost up to 80% of its navy when Crimea was annexed, since most of its ships were moored there and the Russians pinched them. Now, the most formidable vessel owned by Mariupol’s coastguard is an old fishing boat confiscated from Turkish poachers.

Sailing small military vessels from Odessa through the Kerch Strait last week was a “provocation” staged by Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, said the Kremlin, adding that he wanted to create a crisis and have an excuse to delay presidential elections due next year. Like all shrewd propaganda, it contained an element of truth. Mr Poroshenko, who is badly trailing his rivals in opinion polls, probably did want to rally popular support around the flag and buy himself more time. When Russia escalated the situation, he called for martial law in Ukraine—a move his critics decried as a political stunt.

I have heard other explanations, e.g. that the Ukrainian vessels were preparing to mine the bridge. It seems to me that the simplest explanation is that the Russian government is abrogating its 2003 treaty with Ukraine in which the Sea of Azov, only reachable via the Kerch Straits, at its narrowest point less than two miles wide, was to be under the joint control of the Russian and Ukrainian governments.

But that treaty was signed with a different, pro-Russian government. I condemn unequivocally Russia’s actions which amount to seizing the Sea of Azov. It is not unexpected. There is no conceivable way that Russia will surrender the Port of Sevastopol and even a passing familiarity with Russian history is enough to convince one of that. Russia’s actions in Ukraine were inevitable once U. S.-backed revolutionaries removed the previous government. Now we have a situation in which Russia is annexing Ukraine by degrees.

What should the U. S. reaction to the incident be? I believe that we should condemn it but otherwise not involve ourselves in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The present government of Ukraine are neo-fascists. We should not support them. Ukraine must come to a modus vivendi with Russia and arming Ukraine or otherwise supporting its conflict with Russia does not promote U. S. interests.

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