So, Russia and Ukraine are all over the news again. Apparently the Russian coast guard intercepted and boarded three Ukrainian ships – two patrol boats and a tug – that were trying to pass through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov, destined for Mariupol. Ukraine says Russia rammed the tugboat and fired on the other two ships, wounding a number of sailors. Russia also took 24 crew into custody. In addition, Russia parked a tanker under the Crimean Bridge, the new bridge spanning the Kerch Strait, effectively blocking traffic through the narrow waterway.
Here’s a map of the sea:
Note that the Sea of Azov is divided between Russian and Ukrainian control; it is not international waters.
As is often the case in today’s insane world, establishing the facts of what happened is not easy because the two parties to the dispute are saying opposite and mutually exclusive things. Ukraine claims that the vessels followed the safe passage protocols, hailing the Kerch authorities and asking permission to pass through the strait as they were supposed to do, but received no response.
Russia, however, says that the ships did not hail the Kerch port for permission to pass through and did not respond to hails from Russian authorities as they approached Russian territorial waters on the eastern side of the strait. The Russians claim that the ramming took place in their undisputed territorial waters.
One side must be lying, and I have no idea which side that is. Neither, in all probability, do you. There is another way of looking at the situation though, and that is by asking: Cui bono? It’s hard to imagine that Putin would have moral qualms about escalating hostilities with Ukraine, if he felt it was in Russia’s (or his own) interests to do so.
In that respect, this article from bne IntelliNews is interesting. The author does not appear to have a pro-Putin bias, as he is sharply critical of Russian policy towards Ukraine. As he sees it, though, the big beneficiary of this military clash in the Sea of Avoz is not Putin, but Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko:
With presidential elections now only four months away, Poroshenko is trailing badly in the polls at least 10 percentage points behind his nemesis opposition leader, former prime minister and head of Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party Yulia Tymoshenko, and unlikely to make it to the second round after the poll on March 31, 2019, let alone win. Ukraine watchers admit that he has failed to deal with corruption, failed to solve any of the journalist murder cases, failed to jail anyone responsible for the deaths during the Euromaidan protests and in general failed to deliver on the promise of the Revolution of Dignity. Ukraine is now the poorest country in Europe and recent polls say 85% of the population believe the country is going in the wrong direction.
A sharp military showdown with Russia, a strongman image of decisive action in the face of an external enemy, the imposition of martial law (and the potential ability to cancel the elections at will) and the opportunity to wear his military uniform in public often is exactly what Poroshenko needs to rescue his campaign. Indeed, these were exactly the tactics Putin used to bolster his flagging support in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimea, and later led to a sweeping victory with a record margin in the Russian presidential elections in March. If Ukraine didn’t provoke this clash then Poroshenko has just had an extraordinary piece of political luck – and for this reason alone the question must be asked.
The whole piece is worth reading. Until the true facts of this murky military dispute come to light (if they ever do), Americans should remain agnostic about which side is to “blame” and extremely skeptical of calls for a stronger US response. The absolute last thing the US needs right now is to get sucked into another miserable, pointless conflict far from home.