Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian military vessels on Kerch Strait has escalated tensions between the two countries
US President Donald Trump on Thursday announced that he was cancelling the much awaited summit with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The reason he cited for his decision was the Russian attack on three Ukrainian vessels on the Kerch Strait that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov.
The incident happened on November 25 when the Ukrainian vessels, two gunboats and a tugboat, were moving towards the Kerch Strait. This is a strategically important passage given the geopolitical significance of the Sea of Azov and the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian tensions. Both countries share the Sea of Azov, one of the world’s shallowest seas located in Europe’s southeast corner. It’s a lifeline for eastern Ukraine. The region’s industrial exports pass from the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait to the Black Sea and then to the outside world. The sea is also an important fishing ground for both Russian and Ukrainian fisherfolk.
In 2013, both Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement to share the sea as well as the strait. But the strategic importance of the straight radically changed after the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 through a referendum. After the annexation, the whole strait came under Russian control which allowed Moscow to tighten its grip over the Sea of Azov.
Bilateral ties remains tense since the annexation of Crimea. Russia has backed rebels in eastern Ukraine who control parts of the Donbass region. Russia has also limited Ukrainian ships’ access to the Sea of Azov over the past four years. Earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin opened a $3.7 billion bridge connecting Russian mainland with Crimea, deepening Moscow’s influence on the Kerch peninsula. The relatively low height of the bridge denied access to bigger Ukrainian vessels to the Azov. This will cause tremendous economic losses to Ukraine, especially to the crisis-hit eastern region. The latest crisis was triggered by Ukraine’s decision to send the vessels to the Kerch Strait, which it said was part of its normal patrolling of the sea. But Russia says the Ukrainian vessels ignored directions from a marine pilot and entered its territorial waters, prompting quick responses. Russian soldiers attacked attacked the vessels, injuring several sailors, and took 24 into custody.
Ukraine has responded by declaring martial law in the regions along the Sea of Azov. The Russian move has also attracted international condemnation, which included President Trump’s decision to cancel the summit meeting. But Russia appears to be standing firm, despite the criticisms. Russian military has already moved anti-ship missiles to Crimea to face any potential military challenge from Ukraine. The soldiers taken into custody are yet to be released. Some of them were put on trial. Over the last three years, western governments have imposed sanctions on Russia over its aggressive behaviour towards Ukraine. But such punitive measures have done little to change Russian policies. The Russian bear remains aggressive in its immediate neighbourhood. Perhaps Ukraine and the West should change its tactics. As a direct war with the Russians would the last thing any of these countries need, they could start engaging the bear diplomatically.