On 25 November, the Russian coast guard denied access to two Ukrainian armoured artillery boats and a tugboat on their pre-planned transit through the Kerch Strait to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. Russian forces reportedly assaulted the Ukrainian surface vessels, leaving the crew of 23 captive and 6 Ukrainian servicemen wounded. In the wake of the attack, Russia temporarily closed navigation to non-Russian traffic through the Strait, before reopening it on Monday.
This represents an escalation for Russia in the Sea of Azov, from air and sea provocations to direct military action against Ukrainian assets. It is the latest step in the Kremlin’s long-term efforts to destabilize Ukraine.
Military tension in the Sea of Azov has been slowly building since May, when the Kerch Strait bridge connecting the Russian mainland to Crimea was opened and the FSB stopped several Ukrainian fishing boats in the Black Sea.
It escalated over the summer, when Russian forces boarded and inspected non-Russian vessels crossing the strait, justified by Russia on the grounds of its ‘sovereign right for inland waters’. Ukraine, of course, refutes this claim.
Moscow has been inflicting economic pain on Ukraine in the Sea of Azov since its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Fishing and cargo shipments between Azov coastal cities and the rest of Ukraine – mostly coal and metallurgic and agricultural produce – have been strangled. The situation is affecting local economies along the coast and destabilizing the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk.
Putting military pressure on Ukrainian assets in the Sea of Azov contributes to the Kremlin’s long-term strategy of keeping Ukraine politically weak and divided, especially ahead of the March 2019 presidential elections. Provocations at sea help demoralize Ukrainian armed forces and the security establishment, who will be key constituents in next year’s electoral cycle.
A ‘Russian lake’
Recent developments are also part of the Kremlin’s wider strategy to turn the Black Sea into a ‘Russian lake’ under its military dominance as well as to consolidate the claim that Crimea is a constituent part of the territory of the Russian Federation. Construction of the Kerch Strait bridge, begun in 2016, represented an important step in the process of integrating the peninsula. Expanding naval capabilities in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk quickly followed suit. Since 2014, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has been upgraded and reequipped. Through this build-up, Russia is not just projecting power onto the sea but also its symbolic hold over Crimea.
Closing the strait to transit, even temporarily, further demonstrates Russia’s appropriation of the peninsula. Instead of pushing for a land corridor between mainland Russia and Crimea through Mariupol and occupied Donbas, Moscow has obtained an external maritime link between its Crimean military base of Sevastopol and the Novorossiysk facilities on the Black Sea.
Furthermore, the Sunday flareup aimed to deny Ukraine the ability to reinforce its own battle groupings in the Sea of Azov. Hampering access to Ukrainian naval assets is a convenient way to demonstrate that Ukraine is no longer welcome in the Sea of Azov and military reinforcements will not be tolerated.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s policy options are limited. In the direct aftermath of the attack, the Ukrainian parliament voted to impose a 30-day legal regime of martial law in the 10 regions bordering Russia, Crimea and the Sea of Azov. While martial law is unlikely to deter further Russian provocations, it will give Kyiv more expediency in military planning and operations.
The legal regime provides for restrictions of constitutional rights as well as the potential delay of elections. Part of the Ukrainian political establishment fear this will benefit president Petro Poroshenko ahead of the March 2019 polls and boost his public support. This will indeed be cause for concern if martial law is extended beyond the initial 30 days.
Still, this is a better option than withdrawing from the 2003 bilateral agreement with Russia on Cooperation in the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait. The agreement, still in place despite the annexation of Crimea, makes the Sea of Azov a shared body of water between Russia and Ukraine and clearly allows free use of the sea.
Unilaterally cancelling it would have unpalatable consequences for Kyiv because it would mean recognizing Moscow’s legal claim on Crimea and establishing a UN-sanctioned territorial sea regime. This would make the eventual reintegration of Crimea even harder.
Russia does not want to transform violent operations at sea into another land-based operation against Ukraine. The Kremlin is content with the status quo. If such incidents become routine in the Sea of Azov, the potential for errors and miscalculation on both sides rises.
However, Sunday’s flareup is a reminder that the war in Ukraine is far from over and that Russia is counting on Western complacency. So far, the Western response has been unanimous in its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But there are only limited options for pushing back – calling for Kyiv to demonstrate restraint and potentially imposing more sanctions against Russia.
The West has long given up on Crimea. The Sea of Azov seems to follow. While not caving in to the Kremlin’s demands over Ukraine, Western policymakers should seek to limit the risk of miscalculation and tactical errors there, not amplify them. Recent calls for a direct Western military presence at sea are ill-judged as they would embolden Moscow.
The military balance in the Sea of Azov is not in Ukraine’s favour. Despite US assistance, Ukrainian naval forces and patrolling capabilities do not represent a viable deterrent against Russian forces at sea. To guarantee some degree of access in a contested environment, Ukraine needs to increase its military footprint not just at sea but on land through coastal and air defence systems.
On November 25, Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels as they were preparing to enter the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait. The Russian Coast Guard rammed a Ukrainian tugboat and fired on the three Ukrainian ships, injuring up to six crewmembers. Twenty-three Ukrainian sailors are now in Russian custody.
This is the first direct naval engagement between the two countries’ militaries since the early days of the conflict in 2014. While tensions have been rising recently in the waters around Crimea, Russia has generally employed proxies. “Little green men” with no insignias on their uniforms took over Crimea in 2014 and Moscow claims to have no troops in eastern Ukraine, despite considerable open-source information to the contrary, pointing to what it claims are indigenous separatists reinforced by Russian “volunteers.”
Where did it happen?
The Kerch Strait is a narrow passage between the Black Sea, a large body of water to the south of Ukraine that encircles most of the Crimean Peninsula, and the Sea of Azov, a smaller body of water to the north. The Sea of Azov is surrounded by Russia to the east, Crimea to the southwest, and Ukraine to the northwest. The only way Ukrainian vessels can reach the Ukrainian port cities of Mariupol and Berdyansk is by crossing through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov.
What is the status of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait?
The Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait are internal, not international, waters shared by both countries under an agreement that Moscow and Kyiv inked in 2003. This means that neither country can claim the twelve nautical miles of coastal waters established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Should either country withdraw from the 2003 agreement, it could open a new front in the conflict, with Russia and Ukraine each claiming territorial waters near their undisputed coastlines, and both countries claiming territorial waters around Crimea.
What is the balance of forces in the area?
Russia currently has more than 100 naval vessels of various types in and around the Sea of Azov. Ukraine has fewer than ten, including the ships seized by Russia on November 25. The two Ukrainian gunboats that were seized have a displacement of approximately 50 tons each. The Russian ship Don that led the November 25 operation and rammed the Ukrainian tugboat has a displacement of over 1,000 tons and a crew of nearly fifty.
What was the reaction to the incident?
The Ukrainian parliament passed a measure proposed by President Petro Poroshenko declaring a state of martial law for thirty days—effective November 28—in ten regions bordering Russia and Russian-occupied territories. Poroshenko, whose popularity has been declining, said that the declaration would not impact the presidential election, which is slated for March 2019 and in which he is a candidate.
Russia blamed Ukraine for the incident, claiming that the Ukrainian vessels illegally crossed the Russian border. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova termed the incident a “provocation” and warned that others may be in the works.
US President Donald J. Trump avoided specifics, saying, “We do not like what’s happening either way.” US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was more direct, calling the Russian seizure of Ukrainian ships an “outrageous violation.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced US condemnation of “this aggressive Russian action” while calling for direct dialogue between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Poroshenko to resolve the situation. Thus far no US official has threatened punitive action if Russia fails to return to the status quo ante.
Germany called for de-escalation, with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas describing the incident as “extremely worrying.” UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt condemned Russia’s use of force and its “contempt for international norms and Ukrainian sovereignty.”
EU High Representative Federica Mogherini avoided direct criticism of Moscow, describing developments in the Sea of Azov as “unacceptable,” while European Council President Donald Tusk condemned “Russian use of force” and declared that “Europe will remain united in support of Ukraine.”
Why does this incident matter?
Naval hostilities between Russia and Ukraine in the Black Sea or Sea of Azov would mark a major escalation on two levels: first, they would entail a direct confrontation between the two nations’ militaries rather than deniable proxy forces; and second, they would broaden the existing conflict, which is currently stalemated on the ground in eastern Ukraine, to waterways that both countries have continued to use more or less peacefully since the conflict began in 2014.
What did we learn?
Russia’s new bridge over the Kerch Strait allows Russia to close off the Sea of Azov, which it did on November 25 by docking a tanker under the bridge. This effectively cuts off the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk from the world. The strait has since reopened, but Moscow proved that it can close it whenever it chooses. Moreover, the low height of the bridge prevents access by many modern container ships to Ukrainian ports, which has already inflicted tens of millions of dollars in economic losses to the Ukrainian and local economies.
Dangerous flare-ups are still possible in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Warning signs, like the increased Russian harassment of Ukrainian merchant ships in recent weeks, bear careful watching.
Ukrainian and outside observers expect Moscow to step up its interference in Ukraine in the run-up to next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. Election interference will be monitored by the Ukraine Election Task Force recently established by the Atlantic Council in partnership with the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity and the Victor Pinchuk Foundation.
“Crimea, Ukraine, Moldova.” In late August 2008, with Russian troops in control of large chunks of Georgia, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner voiced his fears about Russia’s next targets. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by accusing his counterpart of having a “sick imagination.” In retrospect, Kouchner’s imagination might have not been sick enough.
On Sunday, Russian gunboats opened fire on a Ukrainian naval convoy and rammed a tugboat before seizing it and two Ukrainian gunboats. They had been traveling from the Ukrainian port of Odessa, on the Black Sea, to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian vessels were trying to pass through the Kerch Strait that separates Russian-controlled Crimea from Russia. This marked a new phase in an emerging third—maritime—front between Ukraine and Russia, one likely to keep Europe busy for years to come.
On a recent trip to Ukrainian towns and villages by the Sea of Azov earlier this month, we saw how the situation on land has settled into a relative calm; both sides have dug in and fortified the front line. Assaulting it would now be extremely costly in manpower for either side.
But on the sea the situation is very different. There, the stage is set for two new crises of European security. One relates to freedom of navigation, the other to the economic viability of eastern Ukraine as a whole.
Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, then constructed a bridge from Russia to Crimea, it has been in effective control of both sides of the strait
It has significantly boosted its military capabilities in the Sea of Azov, and in recent months started to quietly strangle the freedom of navigation of all vessels entering Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov. The ramming this weekend belongs to this new trend. The United States and a handful of European states are currently making efforts to appear serious about supporting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. But when it comes to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, even European navies with the bolder governments behind them find it easier to tickle Chinese sensibilities on the other side of the world than to butt right up against Russian security sensitivities in Europe.
As for Ukraine’s economic security, large parts of its economy in the east depends on trade through ports on the Sea of Azov. Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea are farther away, access infrastructure is poor, and transport is more expensive. The region already faces deep economic problems; its infrastructure and production chains have been partly destroyed by the war, and exports entering through the port of Mariupol dropped 58 percent in recent years. Foreign investment has disappeared. And last month alone saw 13,500 cease-fire violations on just the Mariupol stretch of the front line.
For several months now, Russia has been slowly strangling Ukrainian commercial navigation into and from the Sea of Azov. Earlier this year, Russian border guards began stopping and checking commercial ships making for Ukrainian ports. Such delays can cost a ship as much as $10,000 to $12,000 per day on each leg. This makes Ukrainian exports less competitive on international markets, imports more expensive, and local consumers poorer—in a region that is already impoverished and traumatized by the war and large numbers of internally displaced persons.
All this represents a huge escalation in economic pressure on Ukraine. Russia has introduced all manner of sanctions on Ukraine before. But now it is not just a question of restricting Ukrainian exports to Russia, but a concerted effort to harm Ukrainian trade with Europe and the Middle East. This is no small matter because Ukraine exports more to Arab countries than to Russia. Effectively sealing the Kerch Strait is like Denmark preventing Russian ships from crossing the Danish straits, penning them in the Baltic Sea.
So, besides watching and expressing grave concern, what can Europeans and Americans do? Quite a lot, actually. First, they can demonstrate diplomatic and symbolic support for freedom of navigation into and around the Sea of Azov. Sending non-military ships into the sea would help sustain this principle. And no, Russia will not attack or ram third country ships.
Second, Europeans and Americans can adopt something of an economic offset strategy for Ukraine. Some of these measures can be cheap and symbolic, like donating a couple of tugboats, such as the one rammed in the latest incident. Beyond symbolism, they can invest in rebuilding the roads and railways that could link parts of eastern Ukraine to the rest of the country. And they can relax their restrictions on access to the European market for goods such as honey, grain, corn, and grape juice. Despite having a free trade area with Ukraine, the European Union retains quotas on several competitive Ukrainian exports.
Finally, it is time to take the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe offshore. The OSCE has been the major actor in monitoring conflicts across the Eurasian landmass, from the Balkans to Tajikistan. It currently has a monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine. But, given that Europe’s next security flashpoint is likely to be out on the water, the organization should start monitoring the Sea of Azov as well—with drones and ships.
On November 25, Russia opened fire on three Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait and then seized them. On November 26, Kyiv imposed martial law in ten regions for thirty days as a response to the attack.
Contrary to Russia’s previous military presence in Crimea or its military support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, both of which the Kremlin initially denied, this incident is an act of open and unmasked aggression against Ukraine.
The question is, why now?
On Sunday, two of Ukraine’s gunboats and a tug were sailing from the Ukrainian port of Odesa on the Black Sea to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. Ukraine’s defense ministry says that it gave Russia advance warning about the boats’ planned passing through the strait, but Russia denies having received any and accuses Ukraine of illegally entering its waters.
Russia’s coast guard ship rammed the Ukrainian tug.
Russia later blocked civil vessels’ passage through the strait, justifying its actions by pointing to possible provocations by Ukrainian ships. A Russian tanker was placed under the Kerch bridge to physically block any passage. The Russians said that the tanker was stranded, though permission to pass was granted to Russia’s coast guard boats. Passage through the strait was not renewed for civil vessels until the next day.
Russia also deployed two fighter jets and two helicopters.
According to Ukraine’s security service, one jet used two combat missiles against Ukrainian boats.
When three Ukrainian vessels turned and headed back to the port of Odesa, Russian vessels chased them, opening fire and seizing all three. They were taken to the port of Kerch.
According to Ukraine, six crew members were injured, although the Russian FSB says only three people were injured; they have received medical aid, according to the Russians. Russia opened a criminal case against the sailors for illegally crossing the Russian border. There were twenty-three crew members on all three boats combined.
These are not new violations by the Kremlin. Russia’s previous illegal actions in the Black Sea region are already being considered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague.
Since April, the Russian coast guard has halted commercial ships sailing to Ukrainian ports. This has negatively affected Ukrainian exports, 80 percent of which pass through water. Maritime traffic in Mariupol port dropped by15 percent, while in Berdiansk it was reduced by a third. The Kremlin became more active in the sea in May, after it completed construction of the bridge over the Strait of Kerch, the only entrance to the Sea of Azov.
Why did the conflict escalate now? One possibility is that the Kremlin is aiming to reinforce its control over the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea region. “Since the occupation of Crimea, Russia lays claim to control the Kerch Strait. Therefore, the passage of any Ukrainian civil vessels or navy ships makes the Kremlin nervous,” says Mykhailo Samus, deputy director at the Kyiv-based Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies. “The last time when Ukrainian ships passed the strait, it was quite painfully perceived by Russia.”
Mykhailo Honchar, president of the Strategy XXI Center for Global Studies in Kyiv, notes that Russia has been waiting for an opportunity to escalate the conflict, because it has recently suffered a number of defeats, including the Skripal case, the uncovering of Russian hackers in the Netherlands, and Tomos for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
In his opinion, Russia will use the escalation in the Azov Sea to prove to the West that it’s still powerful, and also to test Ukraine’s reaction. “Russia counts on a weak response from Kyiv, and if there will be one, Moscow will test Ukraine further,” he noted. The best response for Ukraine is to introduce martial law and turn the attention of the international community to Russia’s actions, according to Honchar.
Honchar also pointed out that Russia is willing to protect its huge infrastructure project—the Kerch Bridge—at any cost. This shows why the construction of Nord Stream 2 and Turkish Stream poses security threats for nearby states: the Kremlin would be able to use its military under the pretext of defending its vital infrastructure.
Ukrainian and Russian responses
According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russia's actions meet the definition of aggression, as defined in Article 2 of the Charter of the United Nations and the provisions of UN General Assembly Resolution 29/3314. The ministry stated, “Russia has de facto expanded its military aggression against Ukraine to the sea.”
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko agreed, saying, “This attack on the Ukrainian Navy's warships was not a mistake, not an accident, but a targeted action, including as regards the use of weapons against Ukrainian sailors, which had severe consequences.”
Ukraine is counting on Western support. Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said in an interview for European Pravda that Ukraine expected its partners to not only make statements but also take specific steps to counter Russian aggression. Poroshenko has made a number of phone calls during the day—to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg; Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel; the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk; and Poland’s President Andrzej Duda—to outline future steps in the international response toward Russian aggression.
Ukraine also raised the issue with various international institutions, including the OSCE Permanent Council, NATO-Ukraine Commission, and UN Security Council. The meeting of the UNSC was requested by both Ukraine and Russia. The council rejected the Russian request since the Kremlin insisted that Ukrainian sailors “illegally crossed” the border. However, the international community does not recognize Russia's seizure of Crimea. Thus, the meeting proceeded according to the agenda proposed by Ukraine.
Moscow’s rhetoric is very different. Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says that the actions of the Ukrainian ships and the Ukrainian government have been “cutthroat—provocation, use of force, and then accusing of aggression.” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged “Kyiv’s western sponsors” to “calm down those who try to use the war hysteria to score political points in the wake of upcoming elections or other events in Ukraine.”
The official statement of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that the recent events are “a well-thought-out provocation that took place in a predetermined place and form and is aimed at creating another hotbed of tension in that region and a pretext for stepping up sanctions against Russia.” Russians say that this “provocation” was “designed to distract attention from the domestic political problems that exist in Ukraine.”
Russian media say the “provocation” was allegedly planned by Ukraine in close cooperation with the US and is aimed at imposing martial law in Ukraine and, henceforth, canceling the elections, with Poroshenko being a main beneficiary. This is despite the Ukrainian president’s announcement that martial law would last only thirty days, to allow the presidential campaign to start in time. To ensure this, Ukraine’s parliament passed a decree setting the date of the next presidential elections for March 31, 2019.
Since September, Ukraine has been building a military base in the Sea of Azov to respond to increased hostilities from Russia in the area. However, currently its military presence there is quite weak. In September, the US agreed to transfer two of its decommissioned Coast Guard cutters to Ukraine, but they won’t arrive until after July 2019.
What Ukraine can do now is to appeal to the international community to enhance sanctions.
And it can ask for military help. “Because of the bilateral treaty [on the Sea of Azov, 2003], Ukraine still cannot invite warships of third states into the Sea of Azov. But now it has a window of opportunity to ask allies about direct military assistance, since this is an open military aggression,” says Samus. “Ukraine must also demand from EU states to recognize these actions as an open military aggression.”
The Russian-Ukrainian dispute over maritime access through the Kerch Strait escalated on Nov. 25 when paramilitary forces from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) disabled, boarded and captured two small Ukrainian naval vessels and a tugboat attempting to pass through the strait. Six of the 24 Ukrainian crew members detained by Russia were injured in the forced boarding. The strait, positioned at the eastern end of Crimea, connects the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea. The Ukrainian government in Kiev immediately denounced the Russian actions and accused Moscow of military aggression. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko also declared that a state of martial law would begin Nov. 28 and last for 30 days (but could be subsequently extended). Ukraine and Russia requested an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
A Treaty, Crimea and Trade
According to Russia, its annexation of Crimea in 2014 invalidated the 2003 agreement with Ukraine over the use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. With control of the Crimea, Russia argues that the waters around the Kerch Strait are effectively its territorial waters. However, Kiev and most of the rest of the world does not recognize the Russian takeover of Crimea, and Ukraine insists on its right to pass through the strait and the sea without interference. A few months ago, Ukraine announced that it would build a naval base on the Sea of Azov by the end of the year, raising tensions. Recently, Russia has intensified its interference with Ukrainian maritime traffic in the area. For Ukraine, access to the Sea of Azov is critical for economic and security reasons. Without unhindered traffic through the strait, it would effectively lose maritime access to key ports such as Mariupol.
Why It Matters
The biggest current risk is the escalation of this skirmish into a broader military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. Both countries are already embroiled in a semifrozen conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, so escalation there is already a distinct possibility. Given Ukraine's limited naval capabilities, however, Kiev can do little in response to Russia at sea — any attempt by Ukraine to force its claim on the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait would fail. And the threat of wider escalation appears relatively contained because the Ukrainians haven't shown any signs of preparing a military riposte.
But other motives — both global and domestic — could lie behind Ukraine's latest naval foray into the disputed waters. Given its military weakness in comparison to Russia, especially on the seas, it is in Kiev's interest to highlight Russian aggression to the rest of the world — and particularly to the European Union and the United States. A U.S. rapprochement with Russia that leaves it in control of Crimea and leaves Russian-aligned forces in control of much of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine would be a disaster for Kiev. And mere days before U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Argentina, Ukraine is pressing its maritime claims and highlighting Russia's belligerence. However, it might not have expected Russia to go so far as to board its vessels and capture its sailors. Declaring martial law also serves to intensify the spotlight on Russia's actions and Ukraine's position.
For Ukraine, the payoff from this maritime move could lead either to additional EU and U.S. pressure on Russia through new sanctions or to new direct assistance, especially in the form of military equipment or increased NATO forays into the Black Sea. NATO could also step up efforts to build up the Ukrainian navy, but given the force's current state, that would entail providing support, training and equipment for years. And the degree to which Russia enforces its claims also matters in the Western response — the more belligerent it appears in denying Ukrainian access and the firmer it responds to Ukraine's attempts to press its claims, the risk of drawing more EU and U.S. pressure rises.
In addition, domestic motivations could be playing a part in the Ukrainian gambit and the subsequent declaration of martial law. Presidential elections are set for March 2019, and Poroshenko, who doesn't appear to be doing too well in the polls, is at serious risk of losing. Some in the opposition have decried the declaration of martial law as a ploy by the president to either delay or manipulate the election. The extent of martial law restrictions is unclear so far, and not every measure possible under the law will necessarily be enacted. Some provisions allow the government to limit and regulate media, including telecommunications, radio and the press. They also permit a postponement of presidential elections, creating the possibility that martial law could be used for political advantage. The measures the government enforces, therefore, will indicate whether a domestic political agenda, as well as national security interests, are motivating it to magnify a skirmish with Russia.
Whatever Kiev's reasoning, the weekend's events are taking their toll on the fragile Ukrainian economy. Its currency, the hryvnia, dropped as much as 1.6 percent against the U.S. dollar on Nov. 26, and the country's borrowing costs rose to their highest level since a bond sale last year. Yakiv Smoliy, governor of Ukraine's central bank, reportedly met with representatives from the country's major banks on Nov. 26 to reassure them about Ukraine's financial stability. The country has been under an International Monetary Fund reform program since 2015. So far, the IMF has not indicated that martial law would put the program in jeopardy. However, it will probably keep a close eye on the economic policy decisions that Kiev makes while under martial law to see whether they deviate from the IMF program.
Before midnight on 25 November, President Petro Poroshenko issued a decree at the request of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine to introduce martial law for a period of 60 days, while announcing that a general mobilisation will not be declared and civil liberties will not be restricted (the full text of the decree regulating the scope of martial law has not been released). According to the constitution, the document should be approved within two days by Ukraine’s parliament by an absolute majority of votes (the parliamentary session will begin today at 4pm local time).
Kyiv’s decision is a response to an incident which occurred in the morning of 25 November in the Azov Sea when three ships of the Ukrainian Navy, travelling from the port of Odessa to Mariupol, attempted to cross the Kerch Strait. After a Russian patrol rammed a Ukrainian tugboat, the waterway under the bridge in the strait was blocked with a tanker. After the Ukrainian ships had spent several hours trying to get out of the Russian blockade, in the evening they were fired upon, and then detained after being boarded. According to the Ukrainian side, 23 sailors have been detained, of whom 6 have been injured. Russia accused the Ukrainian sailors of violating the maritime borders of the Russian Federation and carrying out “dangerous manoeuvres”.
Commentary: the political aspects
The attack on and detention of the Ukrainian ships should not be seen as a declaration of Russian military aggression: the political costs of opening a new phase of the armed conflict would be high (possible further sanctions by the West; the consolidation of the international community; anti-Russian public mobilisation in Ukraine), and the potential benefits would be dubious. The incident most likely represents a desire by Russian to show that it is ready to take decisive action in the Azov Sea basin, which Moscow sees as domestic Russian waters, and is intended to expose the helplessness of the Ukrainian side.
Given the scale of the incident in the Azov Sea, and the four years and more of war in the Donbas, Poroshenko’s decision to impose martial law is a surprising action, one which is inadequate in relation to the current threat. Therefore, we should assume that the decision to introduce martial law is an attempt to exploit the situation and increase his public support, and it should thus be seen in the context of the electoral campaign (which is effectively already under way) for the presidential elections on 31 March 2019. It is in President Poroshenko’s interest to skilfully manage the current conflict in the Azov Sea in such a way as to gain public sympathy. A loss of face and a lack of decisive action could cause a further decline in his popularity and simultaneously strengthen his current main rival, Yulia Tymoshenko.
In the absence of decisive action by Kyiv, this incident could harm President Poroshenko by causing him to lose face and risking a further loss of his credibility in the eyes of the public. The Ukrainian decision to introduce martial law was therefore taken in order to avoid accusations of passivity and that the Ukrainian state had failed to make the appropriate preparations to repel armed aggression from Russia. Allegations of incompetence in defending the country could adversely affect the course of the incumbent president’s election campaign, who has presented himself as a guarantor of Ukraine’s security.
The Ukrainian parliament is likely to approve Poroshenko’s decree to introduce martial law, which may have a direct impact on the conduct of the presidential elections. According to the provisions of the law on the legal regime of martial law, during such a period it is not possible to hold elections at all levels. Officially, the election campaign should begin 90 days before voting day, which would still fall under the period of martial law. The administrative and legal regulations in force at the time may be used to limit electioneering by rivals to the incumbent president. Under the provisions of the law, the authorities will be able to decide on the prohibition of political parties and social organisations which are deemed to threaten the sovereignty and security of the country. In addition, the government may reserve the right to take full control over the dissemination of the mass media, including television stations and websites. These powers may be important for President Poroshenko, who is currently running in third place in the opinion polls with around 10% support.
In response to the events in the Azov Sea, Moscow has submitted a request for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council on this issue (to be held on 26 November). The Kremlin’s reaction to the events, however, has so far been relatively restrained; only a few individual Russian officials have given any public reactions. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova summoned the representative of Ukraine to the Foreign Ministry, and called the event “a provocation made by bandits’ methods” by the Ukrainian authorities. The president’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov called the event “a very dangerous Ukrainian provocation” that requires explanation, and has said that the Russian Foreign Ministry will prepare a special statement on the matter.
The events in the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait represent another stage of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict resulting from the annexation of Crimea. Russia’s decision to escalate the conflict in the Azov Sea and take very firm action against Ukrainian forces is intended to demonstrate the finality of the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s full control over the Kerch Strait. In this way, Moscow wants to force Ukraine to recognise the de facto shift of the maritime border in connection with the annexation of Crimea, while at the same time demonstrating its own strength, as well as the futility of any Ukrainian military action in the Azov Sea basin.
Most likely, however, Russia will try to exploit the situation by accusing Ukraine on the international stage of taking offensive action, as well as by escalating the political conflict with Kyiv, in order to polarise sentiments within Ukraine and bring about a possible increase in support for pro-Russian groups before the elections scheduled for 2019. We should not expect Russia to undertake a large-scale military offensive against Ukraine in the near future, as this would consolidate Ukrainian society in the face of the threat. Moscow hopes that the winner of next year’s elections in Ukraine will conduct a policy more favourable to the Kremlin; moreover, it will probably try to use the events in the Sea of Azov in its domestic propaganda to improve its falling poll ratings.
The incident’s military context
The incident occurred while a group of ships were transferring from Odessa to Mariupol to strengthen the Ukrainian grouping in the Azov Sea. The group, composed of two armoured artillery boats, the R-175 Berdyansk and the R-179 Nikopol (which have been in service since 2016 and 2018 respectively) and the tugboat Yana Kapu (in service since 1974), were supposed to join the ships which have been based in Mariupol since September (including twin gunboats, the R177 Kremenchug and the R178 Lubny). The deployment of new ships in the Azov Sea would at the moment give Ukraine a significant advantage in these waters over Russian forces, which presently consist essentially of the unarmed patrol boats of the Coast Guard of the Border Service of the FSB.
The Ukrainian artillery boats need not have been sent to Mariupol by sea. In September the first two ships initially reached Berdyansk via land, and were only then sent to Mariupol on the Azov Sea. At that time, Russia decided not to take any hostile action, apart from merely escorting the Ukrainian ships. This was a reaction to Russia’s blockade, ongoing since the end of April, of Ukrainian commercial vessels leaving and entering the Ukrainian ports on the Azov Sea.
According to some media reports, some ships left Mariupol to rescue the detained Ukrainian ships, but they abandoned the attempt and made for Berdyansk. The potential loss of all these ships – both those detained by the Russians and the others remaining in Mariupol – would have been extremely serious for the Ukrainian Navy, which has been significantly shrunk since the loss of Crimea and the majority of the ships based there. Currently, the Azov Sea has four of the six newest 58155 Giurza-M artillery boats in the Ukrainian fleet (the other two are those which have been detained by the Russians), two of the six tugs (one having been detained by the Russians) and the sole command ship.
In the morning of 26 November, the Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine issued an order summoning Ukrainian army units to a state of full combat readiness. However, from the present reports it is unclear whether there have been any troop movements in connection with this order. The situation on the line of demarcation in the Donbas is also relatively stable.
The Kerch Strait incident suggests that Russia had already been prepared to take such a step if the Ukrainian Navy had further expanded its presence in the Azov Sea. Whereas a single collision between two ships might plausibly have been seen as a coincidence, the situation thereafter – bringing out a ship to blockade the waterway, the blockade of Ukrainian ships, and then their boarding, which was clearly carried out by special units (the Coast Guard of the Border Service of the FSB, although its soldiers do not usually participate in standard patrols), and the involvement of air forces in the area of the incident (Ka-52 attack helicopters and Su-25 attack aircraft) – suggest that the Russian action was deliberate and calculated to provoke an armed reaction from Ukraine.
On November 25, Russian Coast Guard ship Donrammed a Ukrainian tugboat, damaging the latter vessel’s main engine. The attack occurred while two Ukrainian small-sized armored artillery boats, the Berdyansk and Nikopol, and the tugboat Yany Kapu were being transferred from the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odesa to Mariupol, in the Azov Sea, according to the Ukrainian Navy. Subsequently, Russia blocked the passage through the Kerch Strait beneath the newly built Kerch Bridge, and the Russian Coast Guard fired on a group of Ukrainian Navy ships as they were leaving the Strait, wounding at least six sailors. Reportedly, Russia forcibly seized several of the Ukrainian vessels in the Strait, leading to tense protests in Kyiv. The following day, an emergency meeting of the National Security and Defense Council adopted the introduction of martial law, which still requires consent from the parliament. The November 25 incidents represent the first time, since the start of Russia’s “hybrid” war against Ukraine in 2014, that the Russian military has carried out an unmistakably open attack against Ukrainian forces.
Accelerated deployments of Russian naval forces from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Azov and a general military buildup in the region since this past spring have been turning the Azov Sea into a “Russian lake,” which carries profound strategic and economic implications for Ukraine and beyond. The Mariupol and Berdyansk ports on the Azov coast are key gates for exports of Ukrainian metallurgical products and grain. And since the annexation of Crimea, they have been handling 80 percent of all of Ukraine’s maritime exports. However, systematic Russian searches of vessels coming into and out of Ukrainian Azov ports have been causing dramatic delays and increased transportation costs. Between July 1 and October 15, 2018, the direct losses to ship owners for having their vessels stopped by the Russian Coast Guard are estimated at $8.834 million, with total due delays in passage through the Kerch Strait amounting to 1,262 days.
According to the intelligence agency of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, by the end of June 2018 Russia had deployed around 40 warships to the Azov Sea. This is probably not sufficient for Russia to mount a large-scale military operation in the region. Yet, it proved that Russia was building up strength to take control of all local civilian navigation routes and obstruct commercial shipping to the point where civilian companies would be likely to refuse servicing Ukrainian ports.
Such Russian activities have targeted not only Ukraine but other countries as well. Notably, around 120 European Union Member State vessels have been subjected to Russia’s inspection procedures in the Sea of Azov Sea between April and October 2018. In response, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning Russian actions and calling them “another dimension of Russia’s hybrid warfare.” The resolution adds, “Russia’s actions have led to further deterioration of the security situation in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and have significant implications for the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine”.
According to expert Paul Goble, Russia’s show of force in and around the Azov Sea is, at the very least, intended to intimidate the Ukrainian military against possible attempts to liberate any of the occupied territories in the east. At worst, it could be a preparation for a new large-scale attack designed to seize additional Ukrainian territory—such as to gain a land bridge to Crimea.
In response to these aggressive Russian activities in the Sea of Azov, Kyiv initiated a case against Moscow in the International Permanent Court of Arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Additionally, starting in September, Ukraine began boosting its own military presence in Azov Sea region. On October 12, the National Security and Defense Council rebuked Russian actions, saying they could “can lead to a critical destabilization of the economic and political situation, [such as a] sea blockade of the Ukrainian shore”; and it adopted a number of measures, including classified ones, to address the situation. Furthermore, in an attempt to assert Ukraine’s right to freedom of navigation in the Azov Sea, in September Kyiv sent two armored artillery boats through the Kerch Strait to Berdyansk—a first step toward opening a new naval base there. Also, in October, Ukraine held military exercises involving marine units, coastal artillery, army aircraft, and tanks to test the reaction of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, National Guard and the State Border Service to a potential coastal attack.
The creation of a Ukrainian naval base in the Azov Sea has been under discussion for some time before it finally received pressing impetus in 2018, with the increasingly assertive Russian activities there. Ukraine’s consequent attempts to strengthen its naval and coastal-defense capabilities presently include efforts to create an Azov Sea naval grouping and related infrastructure as well as arming border guards with high-precision missile weaponry.
Ukraine’s deployment of armed vessels to the Sea of Azov already appeared to have some concrete deterrence effects on Russia, at least initially. In September, Russia stopped all interceptions of merchant ships within Ukraine’s 12-mile territorial water zone. And in the first half of October, intercepts of vessels in open waters stopped altogether, reportedly due to the aforementioned Ukrainian military exercises. However, this week’s attack on the Ukrainian naval group may portend the start of a new escalation by the Kremlin.
The key problem for Ukraine as it seeks to withstand the Russian naval offensive in the Azov Sea is its insufficient resources and huge disparity compared to Russian capabilities. Specifically, Ukraine lost the majority of its naval assets after the annexation of Crimea. Whereas, plans to revive its naval forces and develop a “Mosquito Fleet” of numerous small but highly maneuverable ships is still in the inception phase.
For now, Ukrainian decision-makers are mostly focused on political and diplomatic solutions. And martial law, according to President Petro Poroshenko, does not mean a declaration of war against Russia; it is purely defensive. If approved, the effect of martial law on the political processes in the country, including on the presidential elections scheduled for this spring, remain unclear.
The clash between Russian and Ukrainian naval forces on 25 November in the Kerch Strait is the most serious direct incident since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The incident shows Russia is aiming for total control of the Azov Sea, but its actions in recent days have caused further damage to its international image. However, such incidents in the near future cannot be excluded. If they happen, NATO and the EU should consider a reaction that goes beyond expressing support for Ukraine.
What is the significance of the incident?
Russia’s actions constitute an armed attack within the meaning of Art. 51 of the UN Charter. This is yet another act of Russian aggression against Ukraine, ongoing since the annexation of Crimea and initiation of the war in Donbas. It was, however, the first time in this saga that the Russian side did not deny it had directly participated. Contrary to the Russian position that there was a violation of its sea border, the incident physically took place in Ukrainian territorial waters in the Black Sea and in the Kerch Strait, signifying a violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Further, by blocking the Kerch Strait to all sea traffic, Russia violated the 2003 agreement concluded with Ukraine on joint use of the Azov Sea, which gives Ukrainian ships unhindered access to this water body.
What will be the likely consequences of the imposition of martial law in Ukraine?
In connection with the incident, martial law will be introduced in 10 regions—Chernihiv, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Odesa, Sumy, Vinnytsya, and Zaporizhzhya—for a period of 30 days starting from 28 November. Formally, it allows restrictions of civil rights in these territories (including a ban on public demonstrations and assembly), but it is rather unlikely to be rigidly enforced. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced the restrictions will depend on the situation, based on further acts of Russian aggression. He also ruled out military mobilisation. Unless extended, the state of martial law in these areas should not affect the campaign ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for March 2019, since it will expire before the official start. However, it may complicate the position of opposition candidates preparing for the campaign season.
How will Russia use the incident?
Russia has initially used the incident to disavow Ukrainian security policies, indicating that not it but Ukraine is responsible for increasing tensions in the region. It also requested an extraordinary session of the UN Security Council—at the same time, the same request was made by Ukraine—and accused Ukraine of violating Russia’s border, contravening international law and engaging in political provocations.
The Ukrainian reaction—the introduction of martial law and the political controversies related to it—will be used by Russia to further try to undermine the legality of the electoral process in the country. It will also use Poroshenko’s decision to impose martial law to call into question his character, charging he is limiting freedom of speech and assembly to simultaneously strengthen his powers for the election campaign.
What did Russia want to achieve militarily?
In the Azov Sea, Ukraine, besides its Coast Guard ships, has one search-and-rescue vessel, two small artillery boats, and a tugboat. Officially, Russia has only patrol vessels operated by the FSB Border Service, but it also draws on the potential of the mighty Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla.
The Russian actions were a clear demonstration of force aimed at Ukraine. They showed that Russia intends to take full control over the Azov Sea. It was also a test of forces protecting the annexed Crimea: During the incident, the FSB, the Black Sea Fleet, and air force units stationed in Crimea (attack helicopters and aircraft were used) cooperated to secure the Strait. Russia’s goal also included weakening Ukraine’s military potential in the Azov Sea, capturing three ships—the Nikopol, Berdyansk, and Yani Kapu—which were a significant part of the Ukrainian fleet stationed there.
What might the EU And NATO do next?
The EU and NATO are demanding that the Russian authorities release the captured Ukrainian sailors and the three vessels. In parallel, the EU may extend the sanctions imposed on Russia to include Russian ports located on the Azov Sea and/or ships using them. It may also consider increasing financial assistance for the southeastern regions of Ukraine, which will suffer significant economic losses as a result of the Russian blockade of the Kerch Strait. For its part, NATO may increase practical support of the Ukrainian armed forces, including the navy, and strengthen the Alliance’s military presence in the Black Sea. Individual NATO countries may consider selling additional arms to Ukraine to strengthen the Ukrainian navy or the country’s ability to defend the coast in the Azov Sea.
On November 25 Russian vessels blocked Ukrainian ones from entering the Sea of Azov, fired on Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea, rammed some of those ships, seized three Ukrainian ships, and wounded six in these exchanges. Russia also dispatched helicopters to the area to maintain surveillance and fire capability over any approaching Ukrainian vessels. By any standard, these are acts of war. We should remember that the United States went to war with Great Britain in 1812 because of such incidents. Second, Moscow’s claim to own Crimea, the Sea of Azov, and the Kerch Strait as inviolate Russian territory is wholly illegal. Russia’s claims rest on nothing more than force directed against supposedly weaker targets. We can be sure that it would not behave this way toward a NATO ally.
These actions are also part of its intention to close the Black Sea to foreign shipping in defiance of international convention. They also mark a significant violation of the concept of Freedom of the Seas, a bedrock principle of the international order and US policy for two centuries. Lastly, these actions reflect Moscow’s ongoing efforts to use force and the threat thereof to force Ukraine into submission.
Russia’s actions closely resemble China’s in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. In those cases, Beijing has unilaterally declared sovereignty over these territories, seized plots of land, built up artificial islands, heavily militarized them (as Russia has done in Crimea), and then refused to accept international juridical tribunals’ findings. Now Beijing is using its strengthened hand to coerce other Southeast Asian states into economic agreements on China’s terms in order to explore those areas for potential energy deposits. In the same way, Moscow seized Ukrainian energy platforms in the Black Sea immediately upon invading Crimea and is profiting from them while trying to suffocate the Ukrainian coastline.
What should be done to counter Russia’s activities? Ukraine is the victim of Russian aggression and has been since February 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea. Before that invasion, both Russia and Ukraine regarded the waters of the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait as internal waters, an anomalous but internationally accepted legal status. Russia’s claim today that it has total sovereignty over them is baseless and founded merely on force.
Even though Ukraine is outgunned, it does have options. It can undertake operations to break the blockade, though they would likely be fruitless given the forces Moscow has sent there. Nevertheless, it cannot accept this attack on its sovereignty and integrity passively. Ukraine should give careful consideration to a special operation that might disrupt the bridge that Moscow built over the Kerch Strait that joins Crimea to Russia. But that’s not all. Ukraine should invite the United States and NATO to send a fleet of armed ships to visit Mariupol, the main city on the Sea of Azov coast and defy Russia to fire on or block NATO from exercising the right to visit Ukraine’s ports. Those ships should be armed and have air cover but be instructed not to fire unless fired upon.
Many will object that such an action constitutes a provocation of Russia.
Let’s be clear: Moscow not Kyiv, and certainly not Brussels or Washington, is the provocateur and has raised the stakes. Moscow may be willing to threaten Ukraine in the delusion that more force can give it some concept of victory in Ukraine. But it is in no condition to threaten NATO with such actions. Apart from its economic stagnation and the pressure of sanctions that will be increased due to this action, the Russian public does not want a protracted war against Ukraine. Neither Russia’s military nor its economy can bear those burdens without incurring serious costs that cannot and will not be hidden from ordinary Russians. Given the regime’s fear of an informed public and further economic unrest at home, such a NATO action calls Moscow’s bluff and will go a long way to restoring opportunities for a general reduction in violence. Bringing NATO directly into Ukrainian waters would demonstrate that Putin has not gained Russian lands but lost Ukraine for good and brought NATO into the bargain. It strikes at the political foundations of Putin’s power and belief in NATO’s irresolution without escalating a military challenge. It would also restore escalation control to Ukraine and its allies and drive a dagger into the heart of Russian strategy without resorting to war. It is time for the costs of Putin’s adventurism to be brought home graphically to him, his entourage, and the Russian people.
The events in and around the Kerch Strait over the last five days are a stark reminder of two things: the central role of Ukraine in the relations between Russia and the West, and the misleading notion of a “frozen conflict.”
It has become apparent how quickly a new cycle of confrontation and violence can erupt in and around conflict zones. The tension in the Azov Sea had built up in recent months but failed to gain the international attention it deserved and escalated dramatically this week. Individual EU member states (such as Germany and France), the EU, and international organizations (including NATO and the UN), have been scrambling to find an appropriate response; one that would stop Russia from escalating the situation further while also demonstrating support for Ukraine.
The legal situation is clear-cut: Russia has once again broken international law—this time, by blocking the access of Ukrainian ships to the Sea of Azov. Over twenty Ukrainian soldiers were captured, at least three were injured, and the first have appeared in a Russian court in Crimea. Moreover, Russian troops have concentrated and moved in close vicinity of the border with Ukraine.
Thus, Russia has gone beyond the annexation of territory in Crimea and is now claiming the Kerch Strait as national waters. By doing so, Russia is violating at least two legal foundations regulating the access to the Azov Sea through the Kerch Strait: the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and a 2003 bilateral Ukrainian-Russian agreement in which both countries assured each other unhindered access to the Azov Sea. Similar to the annexation of Crimea 2014, Western powers have been confined to watching the events from the sidelines without finding an effective response—so far.
The first reactions were high-level diplomatic talks and emergency meetings at the level of the EU, NATO, and the United Nations, coupled with calls for moderation and deescalation addressed to both Russia and Ukraine. These are sensible first steps in a volatile setting and, contrary to some of the commentary in the Western media, do not equate with misjudging where the aggression originated.
The Normandy Format would be the most suitable framework within which to conduct talks. This group of four—Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France—was set up to oversee the implementation of the Minsk Agreement in eastern Ukraine.
Despite not having fulfilled the expectations on the Minsk Agreement, the Normandy Format has remained the only functioning communication channel at the level of heads of state and government. Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far apparently ruled out negotiations in this format on the latest events. Instead, he has talked on the phone to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Other options on the table are new EU sanctions and military support through a NATO presence in the Azov Sea. The EU Foreign Affairs Council on December 10 is likely to consider new targeted sanctions against individuals close to Putin. This would be the easiest way to show that the EU does not carry on as if nothing has happened.
Even if no agreement materializes, at least the consensus inside the EU on maintaining the existing sanctions regime, which has appeared weak at times, is likely to be strengthened.
Demonstrating military support of Ukraine and sending NATO ships to the Azov Sea would most likely have a more immediate effect on the situation on the ground. It could help to deescalate by changing the balance of power, but there is also a risk of further escalation.
Extreme crisis situations inadvertently also reveal a lot about underlying perceptions and biases. The fact that Ukraine enacted martial law (in force since Wednesday, for thirty days) upon the initiative of Poroshenko has attracted significantly less attention in Western reporting and policymakers’ reactions. This is symptomatic of the widespread hesitation when it comes to critically engaging with Ukraine while it confronts Russia over the annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine, and now in the Azov Sea, where the country sees its access to the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk blocked.
A discussion of the implications of martial law in Ukraine does not have to distract from Russia’s role in Ukraine from 2014 up till now. On the contrary, the two things are inextricably linked, and not addressing one or the other would be the wrong approach.
Even with parliament’s revisions to the presidential decree that reduced the time period from sixty to thirty days, limited its applicability to 10 regions in the south-east, and adjusted its scope, it remains an exceptional measure that freezes Ukrainian politics, enhances the role of the president, and potentially disrupts the everyday life of Ukrainian citizens.
The president’s initiative is a means to bring the severity of the events to the level of international attention. In particular, in its original version, his decree was also linked to political calculations, as it allowed for the possibility to postpone the presidential elections in March 2019—where, judging by opinion polls, his chances are currently slim. His image as a war president managing an extreme situation as best as anyone could is his best bet at staying in power. From now on, Ukrainian domestic politics will be shaped even more by the rhetoric of war.
The situation in the Azov Sea remains highly volatile, even though both Russia and Ukraine ultimately cannot have an interest in a full-out war. A Western response is necessary to this latest breach of international law by Russia. It is most likely to come in the form of further offers to negotiate and targeted additional EU sanctions. But these are short-term measures that don’t amount to a long-term strategy on how to deal with the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.