Russia’s firing on and then seizing three Ukrainian navy vessels attempting to pass through the Kerch Straits has raised fears of direct confrontation between the two countries, following Russia’s 2014 intervention in the separation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The blocking of Ukrainian naval access to the Sea of Azov has sparked strong protests in Kiev and led the Ukrainian government to consider imposing martial law.
Two small Ukrainian navy craft and a tug were attempting to pass through the Kerch Straits, which link the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, when they were fired upon, rammed and then seized by the Russian FSB border guard ships. Six sailors were wounded. To further make the point, Russia placed a tanker across the Straits, underneath a bridge between Crimea and the Russian mainland that was only opened in May this year.
Ukraine has called the action “openly aggressive” while Russia has claimed the three Ukrainian ships were illegally crossing through Russian waters and deliberately provoking a conflict. Russia has claimed the Kerch Straits since annexing Crimea.
By blocking access to the Sea of Azov, Russia has not only restricted the Ukraine navy’s freedom of navigation but effectively cut off access to around half of the Ukrainian coast still under Ukrainian control, closing sea access to the major Ukrainian port of Mariupol. Russia says the Straits are now open to civilian shipping.
The Russian closure of the Kerch Straits appears to be in support of eastern Ukraine, which for the past four years has been waging a separatist war against the Kiev government. Russia has acknowledged providing material support to the eastern Ukrainian separatists in the predominantly Russian speaking part of Ukraine.
While it was clear that Russia wanted to annex Crimea, principally for strategic reasons, its support for the war in eastern Ukraine does not appear to be aimed at acquiring further territory. Rather, the eastern Ukraine conflict is to remind Ukraine of who is the dominant regional power and ensuring that Ukrainian politicians do not contemplate reclaiming Crimea.
As a Russian sideshow, the war for separation in eastern Ukraine has not been traveling well for its partisans. Apart from receiving a high level of direct Russian support, and what is said to be more than 30,0000 Russian troops, the territory claimed by the separatists is divided, with Ukrainian troops holding its western half and Russian-backed troops the eastern half.
The front line in the impoverished Donets coal region has become static trench warfare, though without the suicidal frontal assaults of the kind a century ago. For the separatist eastern Ukrainians, however, daily life is one of considerably more hardship than for those in Kiev, for whom the war now rarely makes the front pages of newspapers.
The Kiev government, too, has reclassified the conflict away from being “anti-terrorist” to a “joint forces operation”. In doing so, they have placed full responsibility for the war at the feet of Moscow.
The blocking of the Kerch Straits, then, is intended to send a message to Kiev that it should not begin to feel too comfortable about the eastern Ukraine stalemate. It says that the Sea of Azov is, for all practical purposes, now a Russian lake.
Loss of sea access to Mariupol will not have a major impact on Ukraine’s ability to conduct war against the separatists, given it still has accessible ports at Odesa and elsewhere for international trade. Ukraine can also ship personnel and equipment across land to the six-hour distant battlefields.
But in this war, gestures are almost as important as military actions. That is why Russian and Russian-sympathetic cars have blocked the mainland road routes out of Ukraine; they don’t mean much in the grand scheme, but do present a continuing annoyance, and a reminder.
The closing of the Sea of Azov at will has, therefore, sent Ukraine a message of Russia’s continuing serious intent. Any thought that there might be a resolution to the eastern Ukraine war, which has killed more than 10,000 and displaced 2 million more, remains as least as far away now as it did when hostilities broke out four years ago.
Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s Professor of International Politics.