The Ukrainian parliament voted on Monday to confirm President Poroshenko’s imposition of martial law for 30 days in response to Sunday’s Kerch Strait incident. President Poroshenko, citing intelligence information, labelled the threat of a land invasion as “extremely serious” and described the measures as necessary to make sure Ukraine is prepared for any worst-case scenario. This decision comes following Russian Border Patrol vessels opening fire upon and seizing three Ukrainian Vessels after they allegedly entered Russian territorial waters and refused to turn back.
The US and major EU states have been quick to condemn Russia’s actions as a violation of international law and have expressed support for increased sanctions, on top of those already in place following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement, “The United States condemns this aggressive Russian action. We call on Russia to return to Ukraine its vessels and detained crew members, and to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The risk of the incident dragging the Black Sea neighbours into an open conflict is very real given the strained relations between Ukraine and Russia since the beginning of the conflict in 2014. President Poroshenko in a press release stated, “Russia has been waging a hybrid war against our country for a fifth year. But with an attack on Ukrainian military boats it moved to a new stage of aggression.” A measured response to this is required by Ukraine and its allies as further escalation could provoke more conflict not only in the Black Sea but also in South-Eastern Ukraine where an insurgency remains ongoing.
It is vital that the EU and the US present a united front on this issue and attempt to engage Russia in a productive dialogue. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko commented that “sanctions are leading nowhere. It will not help to solve any problem at all.” Minister Grushko certainly has a point in that sanctions have done little to change Russian behaviour since 2014, but military escalation needs to be avoided given the potentially catastrophic consequences not just for Ukraine but for Europe as a whole. Europe has become increasingly reliant on Russian natural gas over the last decade, which may explain why they have not responded to increased Russian aggression as forcefully as they otherwise might.
Andrew Osborn of Reuters also makes the argument that the domestic politics of Moscow are adding to the combustibility of the situation. President Putin has seen his high approval ratings dip recently following a decline in oil prices and the introduction of unpopular domestic policies. In the past, successful military action outside Russia’s borders has raised the President’s popularity and seen public support rise. Increased aggression abroad may be driven by pressures back home, but Russia claims that Ukraine is the to blame and that this was an orchestrated attempt at political escalation by Ukraine and its supporters. Because of the competing views over culpability for the incident, it is important that an accurate and accepted account of the facts is maintained so that the conflict can be brought to a resolution.
Regardless who is to blame for this latest incident, urgent multilateral dialogue is needed here to ensure that no further escalation occurs. This is important not only for those in Ukraine living under martial law, who risk seeing their civil liberties curtailed, but for the EU as a whole. The EU cannot realistically afford to alienate Russia even further given how reliant they are on one another. Because of this, increased economic sanctions are not an adequate response here and the EU in conjunction with NATO must feel obliged to pursue a diplomatic solution despite how hard this may seem. The current reaction to increased Russian aggression over the last five years has been inadequate, and a fundamental rethink is required if there is to be any hope of Russia changing its course.
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