The strained relationship between Russia and Ukraine was tested last week as the countries came to blows in the Kerch Strait, a stretch of water linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. On 25 November, Russian border guards fired at and seized three Ukrainian navy ships approaching the strait, just off Crimea, the Ukrainian region annexed by Russia in 2014. Several Ukrainian sailors were injured and all 24 were captured and transported to Moscow where they await trial. Russian authorities claim that the two Ukrainian gunboats and the tugboat had ventured into Russian territorial waters. Ukraine released coordinates placing their vessels in international waters.
The altercation has prompted an outcry, with world leaders denouncing Russia’s actions as a contravention of international law. The G7, a group consisting of the United States, Germany and other powerful nations, released a statement calling for “due respect for international law, and the prevention of any further escalation.” They stated that there was “no justification for Russia’s use of military force against Ukrainian ships and naval personnel” and called the sailors’ release. U.S. President Donald Trump also canceled his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Argentina, held over the weekend. In Ukraine, President Potro Poroshenko responded by placing 10 regions under martial law and barred Russian men aged 16 to 60 from entering the country, citing a fear of “private armies” of Russian separatists forming. He warned that a war could be triggered and on 27 November said that the “number of tanks at bases located along our border has grown three times.” Whereas, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the press that there “is no military solution to these problems.”
An unwillingness to match the rhetoric of President Poroshenko, as well as his request for NATO support in the Sea of Azov, shows hesitancy in the international arena and exemplifies the high stakes at risk. An intervention from NATO is unlikely due to practical issues. The entry of NATO vessels into the region could break international law and act as a catalyst for simmering tension. Supplying Ukraine with advanced weaponry could be as explosive and does not tend to a peaceful resolution. Economic sanctions against Russia, first applied in 2014, could be extended in response. Whilst it is hard to quantify how far this has stopped Russia’s movements in Ukraine, the economic sanctions have not dissuaded reckless actions that undermine the rule-based order.
Of course, this is not limited to Ukraine, but the brunt has fallen heavily on Russia’s neighbour. From the annexation of Crimea in 2014 to separatist fighting in Eastern Ukraine where 10,000 people have died, Russia has either been an active force or has lurked conspicuously in the background. In May, Russia opened a speedily constructed bridge linking Crimea and Russia in the Kerch Strait, further strengthening its control over Crimea. This has served to weaken the activity of two Ukrainian industrial ports in the Sea of Azov. Although Vladimir Putin has claimed that President Poroshenko’s warning of outright war is merely political, with elections in Ukraine next March, there is plenty of evidence that Russia will continue to harass Ukraine. The international community must have a plan ready to avoid a further crisis and the potential of humanitarian catastrophe.