What Does The Boat Seizure Saga Mean For Relations Between Russia And Ukraine?

On 25 November, two Ukrainian gunboats and a tug were fired upon and seized by Russian vessels, after Russian authorities implicated that the Ukrainian ships had illegally crossed into its waters. The ships were attempting to sail from Odessa to Mariupol in the Sea of Azov, but were blocked from entering as a tanker parked itself under the Kerch Strait bridge. The following day, Ukrainian President Poroshenko declared a state of martial law across 10 border districts, which will remain in place until 26 December. Shortly after the incident, the Russian Federal Security Service or FSB released three videos from captured crew members confessing that they had provoked the situation. As of 30 November, 21 out of the 24 Ukrainians detained have been transferred to the notorious Lefortovo prison in Moscow, with the remaining 3 that were wounded in the initial interception being treated in the prison’s medical wing.

The recent events have prompted the international community to turn attention back to the troubled Ukrainian-Russian region, particularly after Russia called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting to discuss the incident. President Trump’s response was relatively soft compared to previous presidents’ reactions to Russian aggression, Reuters reporting he stated “we do not like what’s happening there either way. And hopefully it will get straightened out.” Meanwhile, a stronger condemnation was seen from the US State Department in a press release, with calls for “Russia to return to Ukraine its vessels and detained crew members, and to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders, extending to its territorial waters.” Top EU and UK officials shared similar resentment towards the aggressive acts, with UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeting “…Once again, we see Russian CONTEMPT for international norms and Ukrainian Sovereignty…” Following the conclusion of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Russian President Vladimir Putin claims he and Trump both discussed the Kerch Strait, although CNN reports that the conversation between the two leaders on the issue was brief. Concurrently, the Ukrainian government has been attempting to rally NATO naval support in and around the Sea of Azov, and continues to denounce the actions perpetrated by Russia.

This most recent incident is evidence that, almost five year since conflict began there, the region is still extremely brittle and prone to flare-ups. Recently Russia has begun mandatory inspections of all vessels moving through the Sea of Azov that were sailing to or from Ukrainian ports. This coupled with the recent completion of the Crimean Bridge which spans across the Strait of Kerch which was designed to be too low for many large freight vessels to pass under, feeds U.S. and Ukrainian allegations that Russia is attempting to slowly strangle Ukrainian ports in the area economically, with The Globe and Mail reporting reductions of 25% of shipping from the Sea of Azov. In terms of the execution of the operation and considering that Ukrainian SBU Counterintelligence Officers were onboard the seized craft, it could be concluded that the three boats were deliberately targeted. It could be suggested that the action was part of continued efforts by the Russian state to validate why it is still so heavily involved in the region, with the ‘admission’ from the captured crew serving as the justification.

This most recent incident will certainly not be the last, as both sides continue to posture and to prepare for the possibility of a large-scale conflict For the foreseeable future, tensions in the region will remain extremely high.

Sam Raleigh