Black Sea Confrontation Increases Tensions Between Russia And Ukraine

A confrontation at sea between Russia and Ukraine is increasing tensions in a long-simmering conflict.

A naval confrontation between Ukraine and Russia in a crucial point of access near the Crimean Peninsula has increased tensions between the two nations, and led to some calls for martial law in Ukraine itself:

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated Sunday after the neighbors accused each other of provoking an incident at sea, with Moscow closing a vital water route and Ukraine’s leader declaring that he wants to implement martial law in response.

On Sunday morning, Russia prevented three Ukrainian ships from entering the Kerch Strait, a narrow strip of water linking the Azov and Black seas. According to the Ukrainian navy, vessels belonging to Russia’s border service opened fire on the Ukrainian fleet, injuring six sailors, before seizing two of the ships.

Moscow had prevented the ships from entering the strait by placing a large cargo vessel beneath a Russian-controlled bridge. Russia then closed the strait, which both nations use.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko endorsed the military cabinet’s proposal, rushed through in Kiev well past midnight, to install martial law across the country for 60 days. On Monday, the vote will be put before parliament and is expected to sail through.

In Ukraine, martial law grants authorities and the military the powers needed to ensure national security. It could allow Poroshenko, who has been dogged by low ratings and could seek reelection in March, to act more independently than usual.

The mood in Kiev was bellicose. ”It is now likely possible that Russia plans further acts of aggression at sea or on the ground. We must be ready for this,” Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said on Twitter.

Russia says the Ukrainian navy illegally entered its waters. The two artillery boats and a tugboat “unlawfully entered a temporarily closed area of Russia’s territorial sea at about 7 am Moscow time,” Russia’s border service told the Interfax news agency. “It is clear that their goal is to create a conflict situation in the region.”

Ukraine disputes this. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Russia acted “aggressively” and “illegally used force against the ships of the Ukrainian Navy.” A Russian ship rammed into the tugboat, damaging it, the Ukrainian navy added.

A bilateral treaty grants both countries the right to use the Azov Sea.

The standoff raises the specter of further confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. Both nations called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. The European Union called on Russia to reopen the Kerch Strait and urged “all to act with utmost restraint to de-escalate the situation immediately.”

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Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said in a Facebook post that Ukraine was employing ”the methods of banditry. First there are provocations, then they exert strong pressure, and finally an accusation of aggression.”

According to the Ukrainian navy, Russia sent two combat helicopters to the location of the incident.

The Ukrainian ships were on a journey through the Black Sea, having left the Ukrainian port city of Odessa and heading to Mariupol on the Azov Sea coast, the government-controlled Ukrainian city that is closest to the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Since President Vladi­mir Putin earlier this year opened the new bridge across the Kerch Strait — connecting the Russian mainland to Crimea — Moscow has increased its control of the area.

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been steadily mounting in recent months, and even entering new battlefields.

Last month, the conflict spilled over into the area of faith when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church officially broke free from Moscow’s control, a move that continues to anger the Kremlin.

More from The New York Times:

MOSCOW — A dispute between Ukraine and Russia in which each accuses the other of violating laws of the sea escalated sharply on Sunday when the Ukrainian Navy said the Russian military opened fire on several of its ships, wounding six sailors and seizing the vessels.

The incident in and around the Kerch Strait, a narrow body of water separating the Black and Azov Seas, marked a pivot in the undeclared war, now nearly five years old, between the former members of the Soviet Union.

The Ukrainian military has been fighting two separatist movements in eastern Ukraine that are clearly backed by Moscow, though the Russian government has formally denied any direct military intervention.

That is in contrast to Sunday’s events, which unfolded as a direct confrontation between Russia and Western-backed Ukrainian armed forces at sea.

The episode also threatened to shake up Ukraine’s fragile internal politics.

At a midnight meeting, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said it would ask Parliament to declare a state of martial law. That raised alarms that President Petro O. Poroshenko could use the incident to delay a presidential election scheduled for March that polls suggest he is unlikely to win.

“This whole story grows more complicated by the fact that during martial law, it is forbidden to hold presidential, parliamentary or local elections, as well as strikes, protests, rallies and mass actions,” Mustafa Nayyem, a member of Parliament, posted on Facebook.

The Ukrainian Navy left little ambiguity in asserting that its ships had been attacked. “Fighter jets used weapons against the naval ships of the armed forces of Ukraine,” the navy’s statement said.

Russia’s Federal Security Service, a law enforcement agency known as the F.S.B. that oversees the Coast Guard, initially issued a statement saying the Ukrainian ships had, after an altercation, altered course to return to a Ukrainian port. But it later said that Russia had detained the vessels and that it was providing first aid to three sailors.

The F.S.B. said in statement carried by Russian news agencies that the Ukrainian naval convoy of two small warships and a tugboat had entered Russian territorial waters near Crimea on Sunday in a “provocation.” The Russian Coast Guard responded by trying to escort them out of the area, it said.

“Their goal is clear,” the F.S.B. said of the Ukrainian naval ships, “to create a conflict situation in the region.”

The Russian reports said the Ukrainian ships disregarded announcements that the Kerch Strait was temporarily closed.

The portion of the Black Sea where the confrontation unfolded is a swirl of contested borders and disputed rights to access through the strait.

After annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Russia claimed territorial waters off the peninsula’s coast that Ukraine does not recognize.

Ukraine claims a right to patrol in the entire Sea of Azov under a treaty Russia designating the sea as shared territorial water. The treaty was signed long before relations curdled after street protesters overthrew a pro-Russian leader of Ukraine in 2014.

Ukraine says Russia’s actions have violated the treaty, as well as the United Nations Law of the Sea, which should guarantee access through the strait. Russian officials said the Ukrainian ships were maneuvering dangerously, requiring the strait to be temporarily closed for safety.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in a statement carried by Ukrainian media, came down on Ukraine’s side in the dispute. “NATO fully supports the sovereignty of Ukraine and its territorial integrity, including its rights to navigation in its own territorial waters,” said the statement, which was carried in newspaper Ukrainska Pravda.

To be frank about it, it’s hard to tell which side is telling the truth about this confrontation. The reasons not to trust the Russians are, of course, obvious given the fact that over the course of the past four and a half years they have seized Ukrainian territory and effectively, and likely permanently, integrated it into the rest of Russia. As part of that process, the Russian Navy has effectively seized control of the area between the Crimean Peninsula and the Russian mainland notwithstanding the treaty it has with Ukraine regarding access to the area as well as other agreements such as the aforementioned Law Of The Sea Treaty, an international treaty meant to enforce free access to open waters while at the same time allowing nations the right to defend their internationally recognized territorial waters. In this respect, there are plenty of incentives for the Russians to provoke an incident with Ukraine to further solidify its claims. At the same time, the Ukrainians have not been entirely innocent in this matter either, and often seem to have the unwise habit of deliberately provoking the Russian bear despite the fact that Russia is obviously far more powerful from a military perspective. Whether they are doing this with the hope that increased Russian aggressiveness will lead to greater involvement by the United States and NATO in the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia in Eastern Ukraine, or for other reasons is unclear, but the possibility that Ukraine is deliberately provoking the Russians cannot and should not be dismissed.

In any case, the United Nations Security Council is expected to take up this matter at a morning meeting later today,but it’s unclear exactly what this body can or will do in response to these events. With the Russian’s having a veto over any action that would be taken by the Council. Thus, the worst we’re likely to see are some strongly worded comments from the United States and other Western nations with little prospect that they will have any real impact on the situation. We’re also unlikely to see any significant steps by the United States or the west to intervene in the matter except perhaps to try to act as a go-between in an effort to cool tensions in the region. To be frank about it, this ought to be the limit of any role that we attempt to take on in this situation. As I’ve said before, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is rooted in a history that goes back more than 1,000 years now and it strikes me as being the height of arrogance for us to think that we have sufficient knowledge to know what the right outcome is here. Obviously, if Russia becomes more aggressive then the U.S. and Europe will need to decide if they want to sit back and do nothing or draw a red line. The problem with red lines, of course, is that if the other side decides to cross it then you have to decide what to do. Vladimir Putin is likely proceeding on the assumption that, in the end, the West will do very little in response to provocative action by Russia. He’s probably right about that.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    … the West will do very little in response to provocative action by Russia …

    Didn’t Trump *just* complain that Obama did nothing about this situation in the first place? Our dear leader *has* to do something if he’s not going to be a hypocrite.

    ReplyReply
  2. Kathy says:

    @Franklin:

    Of course he will. He’ll give Putin a pass, than blame Obama again. Win-win.

    ReplyReply
  3. Hal_10000 says:

    TBF to Trump, there’s not much we can do other that protest. We’re not going to war over the Ukraine and Putin knows it. The real crisis will come if he makes a move on the Baltics.

    To be really fair, however, this is the same decision Obama made (correctly). So I suspect you’re right. Trump will pursue the same policy of doing very little while blaming it one Obama.

    ReplyReply
  4. John O says:

    Seems as if Ukraine would be in a better position now had they retained their nuclear weapons.

    ReplyReply
  5. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @John O: Yeah. Funny how that works out. (And I’m fairly certain that NK is paying attention, too.)

    ReplyReply

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