The stakes have never been higher between Russia and Ukraine after last weekend’s attack by Russia on Ukrainian naval vessels.
The Ukrainian ships were returning to the Azov Sea from the Black Sea via the Crimean, Kerch Strait. The Strait borders Crimea to the West and Russia to the East. Kerch is a 25 mile long channel that is 9 miles wide at its widest point.
In 2003, there was an agreement between the two countries that gave both access to the Azov Sea and guaranteed open access to the Kerch Strait. When Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014-which received very little push back from the United States and Europe- Russia began imposing controls on both sides of the Kerch, increasing the tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Russia has continued with its aggressive intentions towards Ukraine since the 2014 annexation, and this most recent aggression should not come as a surprise to NATO or the west.
The Russian’s apprehended 23 members of the Ukrainian navy and injured six in the process, ratcheting up the tensions to the highest level since 2014. According to a report in the Associated Press, “President Petro Poroshenko [Ukraine’s President] said Russia has deployed ‘more than 80,000 troops, 1,400 artillery and multiple rocket launch systems, 900 tanks, 2,300 armored combat vehicles, 500 aircraft and 300 helicopters’ along their common border.” This information has not been verified but is consistent with the observed Russian movements. Russia has also deployed several advanced S-400 Surface to air Missiles (SAM) systems in Crimea since 2017.
Since the 2003 agreement giving Russia and Ukraine rights to the Azov Sea and access to the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait, there has been an ongoing concern by Ukraine and western observers that Russia would at some point blockade the Strait. Kerch is strategically important to both countries, but critical for Ukraine as its economy is fragile and Kerch provides a major economic thoroughfare from southern ports, two specifically, Mariupol and Berdyansk, that have no access to the Black Sea but through the Kerch Strait. For Russia, they must have access through the Strait for any gains they hope to make in the middle east. The Strait allows both countries access to the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the rest of the world. It has historically been a point of contention for both countries and Russia recently finished a bridge connecting both sides of the Strait, but made it too low for many larger ships to pass under. The inability for large ships to pass under the bridge has already affected Ukraine’s ability to conduct commerce. Since Sunday, November 23, Russia has been blocking Ukrainian vessels from accessing Kerch, thus separating Ukraine’s navy, most of which was lost when Russia annexed Crimea and kept their naval assets.
Russia also has major concerns about Ukraine’s pro-western stance and the perceived threat of western countries, especially the United States, gaining access to the Sea of Azov. Ukraine is not a member of NATO but is a NATO partner country which means it receives assistance from NATO countries through economic and defense support. It is in NATO’s best interest for there to be a stable Ukraine. Putin has made a calculation that this current move will draw limited international reaction, just like Crimea did, and for the time being, his calculation is correct.
Ukraine cannot take on Russia militarily. It would require the help of European allies and the U.S. Force is the last thing anyone wants in this situation, but pressure can be applied through more sanctions against Russia, who is already suffering economically from current sanctions, and Europe can reduce its dependency on Russian oil which would have negative ramifications for Putin, who is already experiencing a severe decline in popularity at home.
Putin is an aggressor who has remained basically unchallenged, first with the annexation of Crimea and now with 1- the attack on the Ukrainian Navy and 2- the control of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. The drip of aggression from Putin will continue-with the stakes becoming higher each time- if western nations don’t exert the power they have, outside of military intervention but perhaps with a stronger show of force in the region, along with reduced trade with Russia and a unified sanctions policy.
Photo Credit: Doug Wilson