Russia escalated tensions in its ongoing campaign against the Ukraine by confiscating two Ukrainian military vessels and a tug boat that tried to enter the Azov Sea through the Kerch Strait in Crimea on November 25. The incident was immediately condemned by many in the international community as a violation of international law and a 2003 agreement made between the Ukraine and Russia that guarantees unhindered access through the strait to the Azov Sea. Russia has detained and jailed 24 Ukrainian sailors from the confrontation.
Pressure has been building up in the Crimean region over the past few months as Russia has restricted shipping to the Azov Sea that can only be entered and exited by the narrow Kerch Strait. The Azov Sea is home to two major ports, Mariupol and Berdyansk, that act as major commercial gateways to Eastern Ukraine. Russia, which has controlled both sides of the Kerch Strait since it illegally annexed the Crimea in 2014, has recently completed a bridge across the straight that was purposely built low over the water to keep large shipping vessels from entering or exiting the Azov Sea. The bridge has left 144 ships that are too tall to sail under the bridge from leaving the Azov Sea.
Both countries blame the other for the confrontation. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the confrontation was “unprovoked and crazy.” The Kremlin put out a statement saying that the incident was a “provocation” by Poroshenko to create a crisis to delay presidential elections early next year. While most experts say Russia was clearly in violation of its treaties and international law, their statement does have an element of truth to it in as far as Poroshenko seems to be using the incident to rally popular support with the presidential election and his poor polling numbers in mind. He used the incident to ask the Ukrainian parliament for two months of martial law which would have likely delayed the May presidential election. The move brought questions of “why now?” Martial law was not even declared when the Russians seized Crimea by force. The parliament responded by allowing martial law, but in a limited fashion. They approved martial law for a period of only one month and only in certain parts of the country bordering Russia. Meanwhile Poroshenko says Russia is building up its military forces at the border and has taken steps to ban all male Russians of military age from the country in an effort to keep them from forming private armies on Ukrainian soil.
The international community reacted to Russia’s escalation of tensions with the Ukraine by holding an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council the following day. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Russia had taken “outlaw” actions. “Sunday’s outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory is part of a pattern of Russian behavior,” Haley said at the emergency meeting. “What we witnessed this weekend is yet another reckless Russian escalation.” President Trump later in the week canceled a meeting between him and Vladimir Putin scheduled to be held at the G20 meeting that is currently taking place in Argentina. However, given Trump’s nature when it comes with anything dealing with Russia, the cancellation of the meeting seems to be his way of avoiding discussing the subject and putting him in a position where he has to confront Putin. Germany’s Angela Merkel, who has been Europe’s most outspoken critic of Putin, was muted in her reactions by not speaking out publicly and instead holding a private phone call with Putin.
While many feel now is the time to stand up to Putin for his transgressions and confront him, there does not, at the moment, seem to be much of a collective international will to do so. This does not mean there are not options. The quickest method to get Russia to stop its actions in the Azov Sea is to do what Poroshenko is now advocating for—to send NATO ships into the Azov Sea as a sign of solidarity and to keep the strait open. This may be too confrontational given the will that Western leaders have shown thus far. Other, less direct, options include sanctioning Russia and freezing its assets, particularly those related to Black Sea development.
Mamuka Tsereteli, a senior research fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, writes in a recent article that the “Black Sea is an important import and export gateway for Russia. The Novorossiysk Commercial Sea Port on the Black Sea is one of Russia’s largest transportation hubs. It has the largest cargo turnover among Russian ports and the fifth-largest in Europe. The port handles approximately 20 percent of all export and import cargoes shipped via Russian sea ports. The port cities of Novorossiysk and Tuapse are also major oil export outlets, with Novorossiysk playing a growing role in the export of Ural and Siberian light crude oil.” Tsereteli says these assets give the West powerful leverage against Russia in any sanctions.
Some point out that Germany could use leverage against Russia by canceling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Putin has designs on the pipeline, which will run through the Baltic Sea, to increase Russia’s energy grip on Western Europe and to exclude the Ukraine and other Eastern European countries from any transit revenues. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the editors write, “Now is a good moment for Chancellor Angela Merkel to revisit her government’s approval [of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline]. It’s notable that leaders of the Green Party, now Germany’s second-largest party by some measures, oppose the pipeline. Green leader Cem Ozdemir warned earlier this year, ‘If we want Putin to take us seriously again, then just stop the Baltic Sea pipeline Nord Stream 2.’” But given Merkel’s initial response to the crisis, it appears she is not interested in sacrificing the pipeline.
Any actions the West takes against Russia for its violations of international laws and norms will further isolate Russia internationally. It should not be forgotten that Putin’s conflict with the Ukraine began when Ukrainians wanted to shift their political and economic interests towards the West instead of their traditional reliance on Moscow. Putin’s actions have not only isolated Russia internationally, they have cost thousands of Russian soldiers’ lives, and have further driven the Ukraine away from Russia.