Russia and Ukraine Squabble Over the Kerch Strait
Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have once again ignited, following an incident that occurred on 25th November wherein three Ukrainian naval vessels crossed into Russian territorial waters in the Kerch Strait. Both countries have blamed one another for the incident. The Russians blame the three Ukrainian warships that illegally crossed Russia’s state border in the Black Sea and entered its territorial waters, performing dangerous maneuvers. The Ukrainian ships did not adhere to the legitimate demands of the Border Security Service and the Black Sea Fleet, even when the fleet pursued the ships to stop and thwart their dangerous maneuvers. Because the ships did not cooperate, the Russian Navy had to use gunfire to stop the intruding ships. The Ukrainian media, on the other hand, reported that the coast guard of the Russian Federal Security Service attacked and seized three Ukrainian Navy boats as the vessels tried going from the Black Sea into the Azov Sea through the Russian-controlled Kerch Strait.
Whichever side of the story one believes, the bottom line is tensions between Russia and Ukraine do not seem to die down. However, there are a few questions that arise from the incident. What is the strategic importance of Kerch Strait for Russia? Does Russia really intend to escalate the conflict with Ukraine? And how does it strain Russia’s engagement with the West?
To answer these questions, one needs to start by understanding the geographical location of the Kerch Strait. The Kerch Strait is a vital waterway that separates the Crimean peninsula from the Russian mainland. It is also an important waterway that connects the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. The Sea of Azov plays host to two important Donbass ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk. The conflict in Eastern Ukraine divided the region into two power pockets, one controlled by the Ukrainian forces on the west and the other by Russian separatists on the east. Mariupol which lies in Donetsk Oblast was controlled briefly by Russia-backed separatists before the Ukrainian military and its volunteer battalions dislodged them. Mariupol since then has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. The city’s economic activity, to a large part, depends on the access to the Kerch Strait which is used by Ukrainian merchant vessels to deliver goods to and from the Mariupol and Berdiansk port. Moscow’s complete dominance over the Kerch strait could put an economic strain on Mariupol which could have wider implications for the region.
Russia has also initiated a series of activities in the Sea of Azov region. In 2015 Russia began the construction of a bridge across the Kerch Strait. The bridge is a direct road link to Crimea’s easternmost point and mainland Russia’s Krasnodar Krai and is expected to increase mobility from the mainland to the peninsula. The bridge is also designed in such a way that it can have an impact on the north-south shipping into and out of Mariupol and Berdiansk. The height of the bridge is just 33 meters, making it impossible for larger ships to pass fully loaded. The width of the strait in itself is narrow and even before the construction of the bridge, vessels would often have to wait before proceeding through.
There are also reports that since April, Moscow began delaying commercial vessels, both Ukrainian and those with flags of third-party states, imposing huge waiting costs on the vessels trying to reach or leave from the Ukrainian ports. Coupled with that, Russia also maintains a large naval base in Sevastopol and in recent months has redeployed several ships from the Caspian Sea to the Azov Sea including corvettes the Grad Sviyazhsk and Velikiy Ustyug. Having dominance over the Kerch Strait serves two purposes- first it enables Russia to economically weaken Ukraine by extending its dominance over the waters along the Ukrainian coast and key strategic ports and second it allows Moscow to have a greater strategic presence in the Black Sea region.
However, by dominating the Sea of Azov is Russia really intent on escalating the conflict in Ukraine? The answer to that question is no. Ukraine is already in a tough spot. The economic conditions in Ukraine are fragile and the government had to seek a fresh $4 billion loan in September from the International Monetary Fund just to keep the economy going and settle debt payments. The Ukrainian navy is no match to the Russian navy, even though Kiev has plans to establish a naval base along the Sea of Azov with the likely assistance of weapons from the US. Moreover, presidential elections are set for March next year and with Petro Poroshenko losing popularity it is likely that a pro-Russian government could come to power in Ukraine. All this is happening at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to meet US President Donald Trump at the G-20 Summit in Argentina. The intention from Russia would be to improve relations with the US and having the backdrop of confrontation with Ukraine would not be beneficial going ahead into the talks. In other words, Russia does not need to provoke a confrontation with Kiev as the domestic compulsion in Ukraine currently works in Russia’s favour.
Similarly, if one were to analyze the current incident, keeping facts in hand, the actions by Russia were more or less intended to keep Ukraine in check with the ground reality. Russia has not defaulted on the 2003 Russian-Ukrainian State Border treaty on the shared status of the Sea of Azov. It is the treaty that allows both Ukrainian and Russian ships to pass through the Kerch Strait. However, what has changed since Russia’s annexation of Crimea is that Moscow views the strait as part of its own territorial waters. Russia also claims the territorial waters around Crimea. In order for the smooth use of the Kerch Strait, both sides developed informal protocols that would allow the passage of Ukrainian naval ships under the Crimean bridge. However, time and again, the Russian side alleged that the protocols were broken by Ukrainian naval vessels. In the current incident, Moscow wanted Ukraine to accept the new ground reality as to who controls the waters around Crimea.
The current incident could further severe Moscow’s relations with the West, depending on how serious the European governments take the issue. Aside from condemnation, European governments, in particular, France, Germany, Poland, Estonia and Austria are pushing for further sanctions on Russia. However, the likelihood of new sanctions is low as not all countries would agree on sanctioning Moscow due to their business interests and energy needs. A disapproval on further sanctions would just be another irritant in the growing divergences among European allies who are finding it hard to agree on common solutions. With regards to US-Russia relations, the conflict in Ukraine is one of the major sticking points which both the sides would want to work on. The Trump administration has continued sanctions it imposed on Russia over the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and has also approved the sale of anti-tank missiles and other lethal weapons to Ukraine, which the previous Obama administration was hesitant to approve. The recent incident could be yet another irritant in the relations between the two countries and could have serious implications for the region if the Trump administration has further plans to arm Ukraine or sanction Russia.