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Peaceful Pretexts of Putin

Will NATO increase its military presence on the Black Sea?

Although the Kerch Strait incident was not followed by any military after-effects, it however had serious political and international consequences. In Ukraine, the martial law was introduced for 30 days, and Ukrainian parliament decided against prolongation of the agreement on friendship, cooperation and partnership with Russia. Moreover, the Crimea annexation once again became the subject for international debate, e.g. in the United Nations. The incident also proved that Crimea militarization and activity of the Russian military units in the Black Sea can bear some consequences not only for Ukraine, but also for NATO member states.

Military Operation

On November 25, 2018, near the Kerch Strait and on international Black Sea waters, took place the most serious – since the Russian annexation of Crimea – maritime incident between Russia and Ukraine. Two vessels of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation – with the support of the Black Sea Fleet ships – attacked and seized Ukrainian vessels: “Jani Kapu” raid tug, and small armored artillery boats: “Nikopol” and “Berdyansk.” The Russians arrested 24 sailors under the charge of illegal border crossing. Russians deployed in the operation the Ka-52 helicopters of the 39th Helicopter Regiment of Jankoy as well as the Su-22 attack aircraft, Su-24 bombers and Su-30 fighter of the 37th Mixed Aviation Regiment of the Russian Aerospace Forces stationing in Crimea.

This was not only a demonstration of power – Russia also wanted to weaken the military potential of Ukraine in the Sea of Azov. Three captured ships were to join other two small artillery boats: “Kremenczuk” and “Lubny”, which had been deployed there in September to enforce the Ukrainian forces already present in these waters. This was also a test for the Russian Federation forces protecting the annexed Crimea – both for the coastal security of the Border Service of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation and the Black Sea Fleet, as well as for the forces stationing on the peninsula.

Ipso facto, Russia violated the United Nations Charter (which defines such incident as an armed attack) and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It also violated the agreement concluded in 2003 with Kiev on common use of the Sea of Azov, which guaranteed Ukrainian non-commercial ships and trade vessels an unlimited access to the waters. Although Ukraine and Russia have been at war for almost five years, this was the first open attack of Russia on Ukrainian forces.

Crimea Militarization

The November incident was not the only one. Since the spring of 2018, the tensions in the Sea of Azov have occurred on a regular basis. In May 2018, the Crimean Bridge (the Kerch Strait Bridge) was opened, and with that Russia de facto took a full control over the Sea of Azov, and significantly limited the freedom of navigation in its waters. Not only does it delay issuing permits for the Kerch Strait passage (which was an indirect cause of the November incident), but also arrests all trade ships (sailing to or from the ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol) for frequent and usually prolonged inspections. This obviously affects the drawing power of both places, and is detrimental to Ukrainian economy.

Mariupol used to be the second (after Odessa) most important port in terms of exporting metallurgical products, which provides for the greatest source of the state income (about 25% export income). Russia’s doings made Ukraine short of almost 30% of its turnover. The necessity to forward the products to Odessa is unprofitable for metallurgical plants, the owner of which is one of the wealthiest Ukrainian oligarch – Rinat Akhmetov. What is more, under the pretext of military exercise, Russia periodically closes selected zones of the Sea of Azov.

Apart from that, Moscow used the last incident to deploy on the Crimean Peninsula the fourth division of the S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, which seems a continuation of a continuous militarization of Crimea. In the recent years, Russia has increased the number of soldiers almost three times – from 12,500 in 2014 to about 32,000 in 2018. In February 2017, the 22nd Army Corps was formed in Crimea. For four years, Russia has consequently been deploying on the peninsula the anti-access area-denial systems (A2AD): Iskander, Pancyr-S, S-400 Triumf, as well as the Bastion and Bal coastal defense missile systems. Russia also increased the number of aircraft, artillery systems and tanks deployed in this region. The Black Sea Fleet has in arsenal 52 combat ships, and 25,000 servicemen. The Caspian Flotilla, which can support Russian activity in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, consists of 28 vessels.

On November 28, the Parliament of Ukraine (Verkhovna Rada) imposed (by the decree of President Petro Poroshenko) martial law for 30 days in ten regions (oblasts) of Ukraine: Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk, Mykolaiv, Odessa, Sumy, Vinnytsia and Zaporizhia Oblasts. Observers were surprised that martial law was not introduced in Crimea. A declaration of martial law could however have had been formally used to restrict civil rights (e.g. prohibit manifestations) in the part of the state to which it applied. Although Poroshenko requested that such decision is taken by the Parliament, he however declared that it would only enter into force in a situation of the Russian aggression.

Mobilizing Martial Law

The very idea of imposing martial law was controversial. The Ukrainian President was accused of making an attempt to influence the election campaign, or even shift the election date, which were to take place on March 31, 2019. The opponents of Poroshenko emphasized that never in contemporary history of Ukraine had martial law been declared, even not right after the annexation of Crimea by Russia or during fights in Donbas. President Poroshenko was also accused if actually wanting to test his presidential potential stemming from the new, adopted in May 2015, act on martial law. Poroshenko’s supporters indicated that if he had not declared martial law, he could have been accused of not responding to the threat from Russia.

The introduction of martial law was to mobilize society, but most of all was to test operational capability of the entire Ukrainian security sector (including both, army and special forces). It was also a signal for international community – that Ukraine treats the situation as very serious and threatening to its state security.

In response to the November incident, the Verkhovna Rada also adopted the act on the contiguous zone. According to the UN convention on the law of the sea of 1980, the coastal state has the right to create such a zone of up to 24 meters wide. The new act was being worked on from May 2018, but the Kerch Strait events significantly accelerated the work. By the same token, Ukraine can control the zone within the scope needed to prevent the violation of custom, fiscal, immigration, or sanitary law.

The Verkhovna Rada did not prolong the agreement on friendship, cooperation and partnership with Russia, which means that it is going out of force on March 31, 2019 (the agreement entered into force on April 1, 1999 for ten years with the option of automatic extension to the next decades, if none of the party objects).

Political controversy related to the introduction of martial law on Ukraine was for Moscow the pretext to question the legality of Ukrainian election process. Moscow was trying to repudiate the position of Petro Poroshenko for being a person who circumscribes freedom of speech and assemblies, and who enforces his proxies during election campaign. Russia also imputed Poroshenko that martial law was introduced only in those places where the Party of Regions (now Opposition Bloc) used to be very popular.

What is interesting, right after martial law was introduced, many people – not only in Ukraine but also in eastern Poland – received text messages calling them to turn up in the nearest military unit (in Poland – in the community council). With great probability it can be assumed that this was an operation controlled by Kremlin which was to evoke panic among the citizens of Ukraine and among Poles – negative reactions towards the Ukrainians.

International Debate

Russia used the incident in the Sea of Azov as a pretext to convene the special meeting of the UN Security Council (Ukraine filed similar claim), and to accuse the Kiev authorities of violating the borders, breaking international law, and of political provocation. Once again Russia wished to disown the Ukrainian political activity by suggesting it is responsible for the increase of tensions in this region. On the Council sitting on November 26, 2018, a significant majority of the Council was critical against Russia, and rejected the Russian suggestion that it had been Ukrainian soldiers who had violated Russian border. Although at the special meeting of the UN Security Council no resolution on the incident was adopted, still the international debate on Ukraine from now on would focus not only on the war in Donbas, but also, once again, on the annexation of Crimea. On December 17, 2018 the UN General Assembly adopted the project of resolution on “militarization and aggression of Russia in Crimea and the Sea of Azov”. The document condemns annexation and summons Russia to withdraw from Crimea. It also stigmatizes the ongoing militarization of the peninsula, and the Russian activity in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The document also calls on Russia to release imprisoned seamen and return arrested ships.

Their fate remains a challenge for international community. The United States have already threatened that if Russia would not release the seamen and not give Ukraine back the ships, there will be more sanctions.

Right after the incident in the Kerch Strait, Ukraine summoned the European Union to extend economic sanctions against Russia. Although the EU did not decide to do that (Germany did not approve), still in December of 2018 its earlier restrictions put on Russia were prolonged (however, there were voices on the part of Austria, Italy or Hungary about the necessity to at least soften the regime of these sanctions). The question of the incident was also the subject of talks for the Ukrainian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Pavlo Klimkin, on the meeting of the EU Council on Foreign Relations, which on December 10, 2018 debated on a situation in Ukraine. The Ukrainian party suggested to extend the mandate of the OSCE special monitoring mission (SMM) to Ukraine, and to introduce international control in the Sea of Azov.

The Russian media, however, would release information to the public that the United States reportedly had the intention to control the ships sailing to the Sea of Azov – including the Russian ones. The aim of such message was to indicate that behind the increase of tensions in the region stands not only Ukraine, but also the USA supporting Ukrainian political activity. The American activity is treated in Russia as an element of political rivalry between both countries.

Although the November episode did not escalate into a more serious conflict, still the incidents like the one in the Kerch Strait can pose a direct threat to NATO member states. Russia – by deploying its Black Sea Fleet and the aircraft stationing on the Crimean Peninsula – proved that it is ready to use force not only against Ukrainian vessels, but all other vessels sailing in the vicinity of the peninsula. Therefore, the Alliance should increase its military presence in the Black Sea, which would also mean its support for Ukraine. As well as supporting this country in the development and modernization of its coastal guard and the navy units, and continuation of common exercises.


Anna Maria Dyner is the Head of the Eastern Europe Program in the Polish Institute of International Affairs. 

Anna Maria Dyner

autor zdjęć: Yuri Kadobnov / AFP / East News

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