Russian Aggression in the Kerch Strait Is Also Aimed at Ukraine’s Democracy

On November 25, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, chaired by President Petro Poroshenko, unanimously decided to introduce martial law after an emergency meeting, in accordance with the Constitution of Ukraine (Article 83). The Verkhovna Rada convened to approve the presidential decree on Monday, November 26 , albeit a scaled down version of only thirty days, not sixty, and for only parts of the country.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are on full combat readiness, and the state security structures–the Security Service, Police, National Guard, and State Border Service–are in a “reinforced mode” of duty.

The crisis began when two Ukrainian gunboats escorted by a tugboat tried to enter the Kerch Strait on their way to Mariupol in the Sea of Azov. The Russian FSB Border Guard violently intercepted them near the Kerch Bridge, with accompanying air support, resulting in the capture of three Ukrainian naval vessels and twenty-three Ukrainian sailors, with six wounded.

Despite Ukraine’s right to free navigation, as guaranteed by the 2003 Ukraine-Russia Treaty on the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, Russia has imposed an unofficial partial blockade of the Ukrainian ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol since April 2018, which are key to Ukraine’s grain and steel exports and energy imports.

The Russian affront on the Ukrainian vessels follows weeks of escalating tension in the Sea of Azov. On November 15, 2018, the Ukrainian State Border Service detained fifteen Russian vessels after they had illegally called at Crimean ports. Russian MP Frants Klintsevich subsequently warned that, “We are pushed for sharp tit-for-tat actions. We are able in a matter of minutes to cut off the access for any Ukrainian vessel. I would not rule out that such actions may follow.”

The current Russia-Ukraine crisis highlights a host of issues which deserve special attention. First, Russia has proved it is willing to resort to an acknowledged open display of military force, even though the Russian military and special services actively denied their documented operations in Ukraine until November 25. This open display of force against Ukraine demonstrates the Kremlin’s intent to open a new stage of the conflict, which would give Russia a free hand to instigate further provocation or launch preemptive strikes with its own forces.

Second, Russia is prepared to use excessive military force. During the Sea of Azov incident, the Ukrainian vessels, although armed, did not pose a significant threat to Russian personnel, vessels, or infrastructure. Despite this being the case, Russian military commanders authorized a shoot-to-kill rule of engagement.

Third, Russia has the confidence to escalate the situation, with the belief that its opponents will back down. Military superiority in the region and four years of combat experiences have reinforced Russian confidence and their perception that their opponents are militarily weak, have low morale, and are willing to retreat to avoid further escalation and casualties. The rigorous appeals for de-escalation addressed to both Parties by international organizations and Western leaders perfectly serve the Kremlin’s objectives.

It is highly likely that Kremlin-sanctioned aggression in the Sea of Azov is intended to influence the outcome of the upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections. Had the Rada approved Poroshenko’s decree, the election date probably would have had to be postponed for a minimum of thirty days providing a possibility to be repeated for an even longer period.

While President Putin would like to see Porshenko lose in the upcoming elections, he is also aware that Ukrainians are very unlikely to elect a Russia-friendly candidate. Therefore, it is very likely that the next Russian actions will be aimed at destabilizing and discrediting the situation rather than at supporting a specific candidate.

Both the Ukrainian political elite and Ukrainian society at large may resolutely endorse new countermeasures against the Kremlin. At the same time, they are unlikely to sacrifice their right to scheduled elections or support the indefinite extension of Poroshenko’s presidency, even if the conflict escalates further. Such a situation would lead to further destabilization and exacerbate Ukrainian vulnerability, something Putin would like to see.

One of the possible scenarios to which Ukrainian authorities need to prepare is another Russian attack during the martial law period. In such a situation, President Poroshenko would face a Catch-22 situation, when a new Kremlin escalation of the war, and the subsequent decision either to extend or terminate  martial law could trigger a critical reaction inside the country.