Task Force Update: Crisis in the Kerch Strait

Russia’s attacks on three Ukrainian naval ships in the Kerch Strait this past Sunday, blatant violations of international law, and an agreement between Ukraine and Russia over the Sea of Azov from 2003, all represent the Putin regime’s latest effort to destabilize and provoke Ukraine. A firm response from the international community condemning Russia’s actions and supporting Ukraine is critical.

At the same time, the attacks raise questions about their possible impact on the upcoming presidential election in Ukraine. Was this an effort by Moscow to destabilize the situation to the point of raising questions about the ability to conduct an election under such circumstances? President Poroshenko requested and the Rada approved a limited state of martial law for thirty days. In light of this draconian step, Poroshenko promised the election will take place as scheduled, now slated for March 31.

The Russian attacks demand a strong response from Ukraine; after all, the detention of Ukrainian service members and the assault on their vessels are a virtual act of war. But if one of Putin’s goals was to further destabilize Ukraine to the point where the electoral environment would be affected, Ukraine’s leaders need to ensure that the election will take place as scheduled and not grant Putin a victory by delaying the vote.  Staying on the democratic path and ensuring a fair and free electoral process, regardless of the challenging circumstances, are the best ways for Ukraine to push back against Putin’s outrageous interference.

This incident is likely to spark more disinformation efforts in which Russian propaganda will blame Ukraine for provoking the latest incident. Ukrainians and the international community must be clear that it was Russia that violated international law and the agreement between Kyiv and Moscow, not Ukraine. It was Russia that invaded Ukraine, illegally annexed Crimea, and continues its aggression in The Donbas and Sea of Azov regions on a daily and deadly basis, not Ukraine. It is Russia that violates its neighbors’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, not Ukraine.

By contrast, it is Ukraine that warrants the full support of the international community. And it is Ukrainians who deserve to preserve and maintain their democratic rights, including the right to choose their own leaders through elections.