Ukraine – Russia: Provocations or political games in the Kerch Strait

Date first published: 4/12/2018

Key sectors: all

Key risks: conflict

On 25 November, Russia fired on three Ukrainian navy vessels, subsequently seizing them in an attempt to prevent the vessels from entering the Azov Sea. Russia claims the vessels were in its territorial waters and violated the maritime law, which Ukraine denies. As a result, Ukraine imposed a martial law in 10 regions for 30 days.  The incident marks a dangerous escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine that are de facto at war since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Two Ukrainian artillery ships and a tugboat were on the way from Odesa to Mariupol, the route to which lies through the Kerch strait when Russian ships blockaded the way, subsequently firing and seizing the ships. Ukraine’s initial response was restrained: only two ships were sent to the rescue and returned back to the port after Russia deployed fighter jets. As a result, 23 sailors were arrested and are currently held in Crimean prison. According to different sources, three or six sailors were injured, one in a critical condition. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin stated that the vessels were in Russia’s territorial waters. However, the location that sailors indicated when signalled for help indicates they were not in Russia’s territorial waters. Previously, Ukrainian ships often passed through the Kerch strait without any major issues, including another two navy vessels as recently as 22 September.

In 2003, Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement guaranteeing free passage through the Kerch strait for ships of both countries. Despite the conflict between, the agreement formally remains active. The strait is an important passage for Ukraine as it connects the Black Sea and Azov Sea, and it is the only way for the Ukrainian navy to reach Mariupol from Odesa. The passage is especially important to Ukraine as it is building a navy base in Berdyansk. Russia expressed dissatisfaction with the upcoming navy base, declaring it a threat to Russia.

The incident on 25 November could indicate Russia’s willingness to oust Ukrainians out of the Azov Sea, affecting Ukraine’s navy capabilities. A navy base at Berdyansk, which is close to Mariupol, could potentially pose a threat to Russia and it may want to secure the Sea by taking over the major port. Russia could foment separatist attacks in the region. There was previously an unsuccessful attempt by the pro-Russia militia to take over Mariupol in 2014. However, increased Ukrainian defences built up in the region since mean any clash would likely be far more violent.

It is questionable how martial law will reinforce Ukraine’s defence. The martial law was imposed in 10 regions, the majority of which are predominantly Russian-speaking, to prevent Russia’s access to the regions in case of a renewed conflict. However, the limitations of civil rights such as banning protests will do little to protect Ukraine from potential Russian aggression. It could, however, to some extent provide internal political stability. The underlying reason for the martial law could be to influence public opinion in the run-up to the elections and win some points for President Poroshenko next March. Whatever the underlying reasons for the incident, the risk that the conflict will escalate further is at its highest since 2015.