Five years after the annexation of Crimea and onset of war in Donbas, Ukrainian-Russian conflict is taking on additional dimensions. On November 25, 2018 Russian warships rammed and later seized two Ukrainian small-sized armored artillery boats and a tugboat in the international waters next to the Kerch Strait. The attack happened amid these vessels’ planned transfer from Ukrainian Black sea port Odesa to Mariupol in the Azov Sea. As of March 2019, the crew members are held hostages in Russia.
Falling short of spilling into a wide-scale military confrontation, this incident is nevertheless not a minor one. It was first-ever open admission and showcase of Russian conventional use of force against Ukrainian army. This emboldened tactics can be a sign of a new offensive strategy. It was not a covert operation carried out with an engagement of proxy forces or disguised Russian military. In military lexicon, one would say that it was a transition from a hybrid-type of non-kinetic and covert kinetic conflict to overt kinetic armed conflict (Samus, December 2018).
Importantly, this attack was premeditated and carried out with higher stakes in mind. This “creeping aggression” tactics is not a novelty, but the one Russia relied on extensively in Georgia and now in multiplying the conflict fronts with Ukraine. In Russian strategic thinking, opening additional conflict portfolios brings immediate gains – Kremlin gets additional leverages in the ‘solution’ of the problem it has conceived itself. This provides Russian policy-makers with bargaining tools vis-à-vis the West: the more ‘dossiers’ open where Russia is present – the more indispensable partner it becomes.
Russian offensive against Ukraine took new shapes in the Azov sea theatre since spring 2018, when Russian coast guard started the practice of abusive inspections of non-Russian civilian vessels, thus seriously hindering the navigation. According to the international agreements, in particular, the bilateral Agreement on the Sea of Azov from 2003, the Azov sea has been considered internal waters of the two states and Ukraine should enjoy freedom of navigation there. Since the annexation of Crimea Kerch Strait - which is the only entry point to Azov from the Black sea – and the navigation in general are de-facto controlled by Russia. This is especially true after construction of the Kerch bridge between Crimea and Russia– it has the parameters that bars Panamax class vessels from passing the Strait and those had constituted over 20 % of all ship traffic (European Parliament, October 22).
The strategic implications of these actions are remarkable – by squeezing out Ukrainian navy from the Azov Sea or limiting commercial navigation Russia effectively transforms the Azov Sea from shared internal waters into “Russian lake”. The delays and the consequent increased transportation costs caused by the inspections have detrimental consequences for maritime trade and the workload of the Ukrainian ports in Azov (after annexation of Crimea they were operating 80 % of Ukraine’s maritime exports) (European Parliament, October 22, 2018).
The disinformation component of Russian offensive was quite salient. According to East Stratcom Task Force of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the incident provoked a swaying disinformation wave, using various tactics ranging from distortion of facts to dismissing those (EEAS, November 29, 2018).
The Kremlin’s main narrative in post-incident disinformation campaign is that of the 'escalatory' nature of Western response. This narrative also rests on the assumption that Ukrainian actions were illegal – Ukrainian ships allegedly entered the ‘Russian waters’ illegally. Paradoxically, Russian decision-makers refer to international law and Russian territorial integrity when talking about the incident – and explicitly refer to post-2014 reality as a departure point (with Crimea as Russia’s sovereign territory) that needs to be generally recognized.
They discursively shifted responsibility towards Kyiv and the West, with Ukrainian authorities being attributed varying extent of independent agency in different Kremlin’s narratives. In one version, Kyiv was blamed for staging a provocation - President Poroshenko was allegedly heating up the tensions in order to introduce martial law and cancel the presidential elections as he is reportedly facing tough competition.The fact that some Western capitals called on both Russia and Ukraine to refrain from hostilities in the aftermath of the incident, was translated by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov as dissatisfaction of the West with Ukraine (News-Front, November 26, 2018). In another narrative, West masterminded the provocation as another move in what is depicted as its deliberate policy to circumvent Russian interests.
Months before the incident the disinformation campaign laid the grounds for the operation with the messages that Kerch Bridge is under threat of explosion by Ukrainian and British secret services or that Ukraine infected the Azov Sea with cholera (Euractiv, December 12, 2018). Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, was turning a deaf ear to EU’s calls to stop blocking the navigation saying that Europeans did not react when Ukraine was allegedly openly calling to explode the bridge (News-Front, November 26, 2018). There was also a deliberate media manipulation to present the Azov Sea as Russia’s ‘inland sea’, thus outlawing any actions Ukrainian navy would undertake in the area in Russian public discourse.
In yet another move to ignite the popular indignation in Russia and abroad with the ‘manipulative’ and ‘junta-like’ approach of Ukrainian authorities after the incident the videos with the “confessions” of some of the Ukrainian crew members, where they admitted being sent with the goal to stage a provocation, were aired on Russian channels, as well as news with claims that “children in Mariupol were forced to dig trenches for the Ukrainian army”.
Ukraine has taken certain responses, ranging from initiating the case against Russia in the International Permanent Court of Arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, building up its military base in Berdiansk on the Azov Sea shore, conducting military exercises, or carrying out certain measures to sustain the economic situation in regions vulnerable to Russia’s blockade in Azov Sea. Kyiv pushed for the “Azov” package of sanctions and for the OSCE special monitoring mission (SMM) to become stationed in Crimea from where so far it was barred from by Russia.
Albeit explicit support that Ukraine got from international institutions and its partners (e.g. UN General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russian actions was a diplomatic accomplishment), there is apparently few appetite shown by its key European partners to escalate the situation with Russia. German leadership undertook some unilateral actions to mitigate the crisis citing de-escalation in the Azov Sea as its primary goal. It echoed the proposal to extend the OSCE mission to the Sea of Azov and undertook to cover its expenses together with France. Both Chancellor Merkel and German Minister of Foreign Affairs Maas warned against the new sanctions while the efforts to deescalate the situation are being made. Falling short of immediate military solution to the crisis and more robust response to Russian actions, the discussions between Ukraine and the EU are currently elaborating a program of EU’s economic support to the regions adjacent to Azov Sea (Pryazovye) (Gov.ua, December 17, 2018). As for sanctions, these are personal, targeted sanctions which have been under discussion in the EU institutions. As a result, another eight Russian officials were added to the list of persons and organizations subject to travel bans and freezing of funds, thus totalling 170 persons and 44 organizations under EU sanctions (EU Council, March 3, 2019).
Ukraine has been wary of any solutions without its participation, though stated that it in principle welcomes the mechanism of international monitoring of navigation in Azov Sea and Kerch Strait as it can serve as a kind of sanction against Russia (Ukrayinska Pravda, December 10, 2018). Kyiv’s greatest apprehension is to be excluded from any format that would decide on the future legal status of Azov Sea and Kerch Strait.
The proposal about the expansion of the OSCE SMM mandate to Kerch-Azov Sea area was rejected by Russia on claims that the mission has its mandate and geographic scope and no observation is needed should the rules of navigation be followed (Socor, December 13, 2018). Moscow also opposes the proposal to discuss navigation in the Kerch Strait in Normandy format or Minsk format. Its tactics is arguably to exchange Russia-controlled freedom of navigation into the acceptance of Russia‘s control over Crimea and Kerch Strait (see more Socor, January 21, 2019).
The reason why proposed solutions are likely not to be implemented is the Russian veto power it exercises very free-handedly. It is also likely to instrumentalize it in case of any proposed solution for Donbas which is trying to reshape the existing Minsk mechanism. This happens, for instance, in case of the recent Sajdik plan – a resolution plan offered at the OSCE ministerial in December 2018 by an Austrian diplomat Martin Sajdik, special representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office in the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine that argues for the deployment of the UN/OSCE mission to Donbas and UN transitional administration. Ukraine has reservations against the plan itself, but Russian veto limits the scope of discussion in the first place.
In general, the incident at the Kerch Strait was meant to send a message that Moscow will not fall short of a preemptive strike in case of Western growing assertiveness in its percieved sphere of influence. Any attempts of Kyiv to grow its military capabilities in Azov and Black Sea regions and West to assist will be followed by full-scale military response. Recognition of Crimea belonging to Russia should be a total starter in all Russia-West transactions. It is a price, Moscow argues, for any even symbolical advancement in Donbas or even for keeping Russia at the table whatsoever.
Russian strategic communication vis-a-vis Ukraine attempts to validate several Kremlin-driven narratives, which include those of Ukraine as a failed state, ruled by West-sponsored puppet government and the West encroaching on Russia’s legitimate interests. It exploits the vulnerabilities of Ukrainian society and backs the military goals with non-military means. It is also likely to continue to capitalize on the weak spots in the Western states‘ convergence trying to normalize the new world order with revisionist Russia as its centerpiece.
Maryna Vorotnyuk, PhD, researcher at the Center for European Neighbourhood Studies, Central European University, Budapest.