Analysis

Russian Aggression Against Ukraine May Not Start WWIII, but Hints at Troubled Waters for Putin

Twenty-four Ukrainian sailors are being held by Russia following Sunday’s incident on the Black Sea when three Ukrainian vessels were captured, but no one knows what the Kremlin will do next

This screen grab shows Russian aircraft flying over the Crimean Bridge that spans the Kerch Strait, after Russia fired on and then seized three Ukrainian ships on November 25, 2018.
AFP

>> Update: Russia says will deploy new S-400 missile systems in Crimea

KIEV – You don’t need to know much Russian to understand you’re hearing some pretty salty language, even coming from a sailor.

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Captured on video, we hear a voice – presumably the captain onboard a Russian naval vessel – saying “Press it, good job!” as his ship moves closer to a tugboat it is pursuing. “Press him on the right, fuck it!” the officer yells. “Press on him. I’ll take him, dammit,” the man shouts as he demands that his ship be turned hard to port (left, for the less nautically minded), in the direction of the tugboat.

“Come on, fuck it, come on!” he screams. “Hold together, fucking bitches!” he adds, seconds before his ship rams violently into the tugboat.

This was the scene on the Black Sea on Sunday, near the Kerch Strait that separates mainland Russia from Russian-annexed Crimea. In a place that has long been a potential flash point in the still-simmering war between Ukraine and Russian-led forces in Eastern Ukraine, Russian coast guard ships opened fire on three Ukrainian vessels. They captured 24 sailors, wounding at least six in the process, according to Ukrainian officials.

Sunday’s events marked a new milestone in the conflict: It’s the first time Russian forces have publicly acknowledged opening fire on Ukrainian forces. They seized the three vessels, including the Ukrainian naval tugboat, and blocked the Kerch Strait – the only passage to the shared Sea of Azov and to some of Ukraine’s most important Black Sea ports.

The reaction in Kiev on Sunday night was swift. Battling the bitter cold, several hundred young activists – many from Ukraine’s ultranationalist movement – burned tires in front of the Russian Embassy and chanted “Death to Russia!” Later in the evening, members of the neo-Nazi group C14 burned a car – probably not to keep warm – that had Russian diplomatic plates.

And while ordinary citizens didn’t seem too fazed by the news on Monday, seemingly more concerned with navigating snowfall that had left some streets impassable, several hundred ultranationalists gathered in Independence Square and marched on the presidential administration building up the hill, demanding President Petro Poroshenko sever all diplomatic ties with Russia.

Inside, the president was certainly busy. He pushed ahead with plans to introduce martial law, in response to what he claimed was the pressing threat of a Russian land invasion. It was eventually approved by Ukraine’s parliament in a watered-down form, limited in time and geographic scope. Western leaders, meanwhile, issued statement after statement condemning Russia’s actions, including in a UN Security Council emergency meeting to discuss Russia’s actions.

Both Ukraine and Russia enjoy free access to the Kerch Strait since a 2003 treaty between the two countries. Of course, it used to be a strait between Russia and Ukraine. But after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 – which included seizing half of Ukraine’s naval fleet at the time – and subsequent proxy invasion of Eastern Ukraine the next month, the strait became a channel between two Russian-controlled pieces of land – even though the international community continues to reject Russia’s claims of sovereignty over Crimea.

Even getting to Mariupol, the largest Ukrainian city in the region, can take up to 18 hours by train from Kiev. As a result, this leaves the wartime hot spot out of the reach of most international journalists.

While Sunday’s events seemingly mark a clear attempt at escalation on the Russian side, is World War III about to break out on the Black Sea? Probably not. But this doesn’t mean that what happened will pass without any consequences.

The Ukrainian and Russian versions differ wildly, of course. But as is often the case, the Russian version doesn’t seem to hold much water. Russia claimed that Ukraine’s ships were sailing dangerously, provoking Russian forces into an attack for precautionary reasons. This also necessitated that the strait be blocked by a tanker being placed underneath the new, Russian-built bridge between mainland Russia and Russian-annexed Crimea.

On Tuesday, Russia pointed to the fact that two of the sailors onboard were Ukrainian intelligence officers, though Ukraine has said they were on a routine counterintelligence mission, like the Russians also regularly conduct.

For months, Ukraine has been accusing Russia of deliberately stoking tensions around the Sea of Azov. This has included building its $3.7 billion bridge, with a deck too low to allow some larger ships to pass beneath, and harassing vessels bound for Ukrainian ports like Mariupol, costing the port cities’ economies millions of dollars.

According to Ukraine, the three vessels sailing from Odessa to Mariupol were announced in advance to the Russian coast guard, which didn’t bother replying to two radio requests from the ships as they sailed toward the Kerch Strait. They were intercepted, as shown in the video, as the coast guard opened fire on the vessels.

On Monday, Ukrainian officials released what they said was an intercepted communication between Russian forces; independent observers agree that the communication is probably authentic. The language here is no less salty than in the abovementioned video – and seems to suggest that President Vladimir Putin himself was fully aware of the Russian navy’s actions from the start.

“We have to fuck them up! We have to fucking finish them,” one voice says. “It seems that the president [Putin] is already in control of this shit.”

The question many are asking is why the Kremlin would risk escalating an already simmering conflict. Well, for one, Putin is not in the most comfortable position at home, and moments of patriotic pugilism have in the past helped him turn things around.

Russia’s economy continues to be in dire straits and the president has seen his once-soaring approval ratings fall to new lows – not helped by his decision a few months ago to increase the retirement age (which resulted in mass protests across Russia). One independent pollster in Russia found that 61 percent of Russians believe he is “fully” responsible for Russia’s problems.

Despite Sunday’s actions at sea, Russia is not in a strong position to embark on expensive new overseas military missions. Aside from being bogged down with its proxies in Eastern Ukraine – and, according to a recent investigation, spending billions of dollars to keep their unrecognized enclaves afloat – Russia remains tied down by the war in Syria.

Meanwhile, new analysis from a Russian maritime expert on Tuesday suggested that Russia’s naval actions against Ukraine actually appeared clumsy and haphazard, suggesting the operation wasn’t as meticulously planned as previously believed.

However, analysts say the goal with provocative actions such as these is less to embark on a new war, or even to start a new stage of an already simmering one. Instead, whether they are directed from the Kremlin or not, such acts are intended to increase the Kremlin’s leverage on the West and on countries it still considers to be within its sphere of influence – especially Ukraine.

“It signals that [the Kremlin] will swat at anyone from the West or Ukraine they consider a threat to the Putin regime’s position,” says Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer at King’s College London. “Maybe the Russians have understood that they won’t get any gains in Ukraine … as long as Putin is in power,” he adds. “Instead, these are responses designed to bully Ukraine and the West from areas Moscow considers strategically crucial.”

Mark Galeotti, a senior nonresident fellow at Prague’s Institute of International Relations, tweeted that the Kremlin wants “to turn the Azov Sea into a Russian basin, and to use it to bring leverage to bear on Kiev. It wants to demonstrate its capacity to act without having to worry about external constraint,” he wrote.

Galeotti also mulled how the West should react to the provocation, noting that while the West can’t exactly send naval forces to back up Ukraine, nor can Moscow “be allowed to feel [it] can act [with] impunity.”

Statements of concern, which can easily be mocked on Twitter for sounding like they’ve been produced with the same cookie-cutter, still need to be said – especially as observers don’t expect either European Union or U.S. sanctions on Russia to be dramatically scaled up in response.

Unsurprisingly, President Donald Trump’s response has been feeble. In yet another instance of the U.S. president seemingly not knowing a thing about what he’s just been asked, he responded to a question about the incident by saying: “We do not like what’s happening either way. And hopefully it will get straightened out,” refusing to condemn Russia’s aggression.

Still, the EU and the Americans have options. Clarkson says intense Western diplomatic pressure is needed to get the Ukrainian vessels and 24 sailors back as soon as possible. Specific sanctions could be extended on Russian entities specifically involved in Crimea and with building the bridge over the Kerch Strait, says Clarkson, in order to send a message.

“Concrete demonstrations of solidarity will give Ukrainians a stronger sense that they are not alone,” he adds.

But Moscow’s next moves are not easy to predict. On Tuesday, some of the Ukrainian sailors were filmed reading out clearly fake “confessions” – their eyes darting back and forth between lines on a script – about how they took part in a deliberate provocation. It’s an obvious violation of the Geneva Convention, though it’s likely the Kremlin will offer some excuse about the countries not being technically at war and that they’ve charged the men with crossing Russian borders illegally.

While Ukraine’s authorities remain convinced that Russian land forces are about to make new advances in Ukraine’s east, or even invade, others are equally convinced that Russia’s next moves will be smaller in scale. Galeotti believes it will be more about the Kremlin showing the stock it has in store, but isn’t trying to use – yet.