The Russian and Ukrainian navies clashed on the 26th of November near the Kerch Strait, the door to the Azov Sea. As a result, the Russians captured 3 Ukrainian vessels, including their crew members who are to be held for 2 months. Although controllable, this incident is already having repercussions in both Ukraine and internationally. The G20 meeting in Buenos Aires this weekend will test Western leaders’ resolve in relation to this latest crisis.
Both Kiev and Moscow came up with contradicting statements, both insisting on the legitimacy of their actions under international maritime law. The contentious point is the 2003 agreement on cooperation and shared use of the Sea of Azov which made the latter a jointly controlled territory. Yet since Crimea’s annexation in 2014, Russia claims that the treaty does not apply anymore and considers the area as part of its territorial waters, thus blocking or delaying the transit of Ukrainian ships through the Kerch Strait. The Strait is economically critical for Ukraine’s economy as it is the country’s only way to ship minerals and greens from key eastern ports such as Mariupol.
Although unprecedented, there are multiple reasons behind the incident. The immediate impetus for Moscow has been statements from Western powers and recent Ukrainian actions concerning the Black Sea. On the 16th of November, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State met in Washington, where the latter asserted American solidarity for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression and reminded the audience of his July 2018 Crimea Declaration, condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea and prefiguring greater US navy involvement in the Black Sea. Ukraine has also continued its military buildup and promised to build a navy base on the Sea of Azov by the end of the year. The view from Moscow is therefore that Ukraine and the West have converged to militarily challenge Russia in the Black Sea. Alexey Pushkov, a Russian Senator who recently spoke at a high level conference in Berlin, highlighted the fact that in the past year 15 Russian ships were captured by Ukraine, without any international outrage being raised.
On a more general level, Putin and Russia’s government popular ratings are on the low according to the Levada Centre. At a whopping 81% during the invasion of Crimea, Putin’s approval is now around 66% whilst his government’s is only at 41%. The recent clashes have already increased the President’s popularity which increasingly seems to depend on nationalistic sentiments in Russia. The historically low approval rate is largely explained by Russia’s economic isolation due to the sanctions, consistent economic mismanagement and the rather mild growth forecasted for the next few years, which does not exceed 2%. According to a recent PwC survey, 90% of Russian executives found doing business difficult, primarily because of high taxes, bureaucratic barriers, lack of qualified staff and corruption. The current free fall of oil prices are also likely to hit the Russian economy hard if it continues into 2019.
Ukraine itself has gradually become an irritating subject for Putin. Instead of halting the country’s tilt toward the West, Russia’s actions since 2014 have accelerated it. Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko said on the 22nd of November that he was seeking to change the country’s constitution to make an EU and NATO membership accession easier, and that such changes would send the “strong message” to Moscow that Ukraine is “parting completely and irrevocably” from its eastern neighbour. Also, the divorce between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches is set to be formalised this December, a disastrous event for Russia’s soft power as the country’s priests lose 1/3 of their parishes. Ukraine is therefore slipping away from Russia and Putin might be trying to test Western and Ukrainian resolve to see what Russia’s next moves can be to stop Ukraine’s definitive tilt.
In Ukraine, the accident is likely to reinforce national sentiment against Russia as well as Poroshenko’s presidency and support from Western allies. The President declared martial law for 30 days in parts of the country most vulnerable from a Russian ground invasion, which he deemed “imminent”. Although this exaggerated statement is unlikely to prove true, as the crisis seems to be under control, it remains to be seen how the accident will impact Russia’s relations with Western powers.
Already in Germany, people like Norbert Roettgen, a possible successor to Chancellor Merkel, called for new economic sanctions against Russia. Officials known to be opposed to Russia in Trump’s Administration, namely Secretary of State Pompeo and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, have covered President Trump’s relative silence on the question and called out this “Russian aggression”. The diplomatic spat could not come at a more crucial moment. From the 30th of November to the 1st of December, world leaders will meet in Buenos Aires to discuss matters of great importance, especially the Sino-American trade dispute and the current free fall in oil prices. For the latter issue, Putin is of utmost importance, and his dialogues with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and America’s President will be closely followed. It therefore remains to be seen whether the Crimean accident will impact Trump and Putin’s discussions, two leaders who seem to already have opposite views on where the price of oil should go.
Bloomberg, Evgenya Pismennaya, 27 November 2018, “Russian Business Says Sanctions Hurt, Despite Kremlin Optimism”.
US Department of State, 16 November 2018, “Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin Statements to the Press.”
Reuters, 26 November 2018, “Crimean court detains Ukrainian sailor captured by Russia for two months- TASS”.
Radio FreeEurope, 22 November 2018, “Poroshenko Says Russia Has No ‘Veto’ On Ukraine’s EU, NATO Bids”.
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