Tensions in the Kerch Strait, the only entry point from the Black Sea to the Azov Sea, had been building in recent months. In May, Russia opened a bridge across the strait—the so-called Crimea bridge—connecting the Russian mainland to the Crimean Peninsula, which they annexed illegally in 2014. On November 25, Russian coast guard boats rammed and fired on three Ukrainian navy vessels attempting to pass through the strait on their way to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. Russia seized the Ukrainian boats and detained the crew members and has since partially unblocked the ports.
Around the time of the bridge’s opening, Ukraine began complaining of considerable delays for some of its ships passing through the strait due to tougher controls and Russian patrols. Unhindered access to the Azov Sea is of high economic and strategic importance to Ukraine, which exports about 40 percent of its industrial production through the sea and its ports.
Ukraine claims that Russia violated a 2003 bilateral treaty which stipulates that the waters in the Azov Sea and within the Kerch Strait are shared waters between the two countries. Russia on the other hand, says that Ukraine violated its territorial waters and that the ships carried out provocative actions.
In response to the incident, the Ukrainian parliament voted to declare martial law in 10 of its 25 provinces: those on the Black Sea and Azov Sea, those directly bordering Russia, and those bordering Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko also said that his country is “under threat of full-scale war with Russia.”
Despite high tensions, a full-scale war is unlikely, as neither Russia nor Ukraine stand to gain anything from it at the moment. Russian public opinion seems to be more supportive of a simmering conflict with Ukraine, rather than a full-scale war. Moscow also wants to avoid fresh economic sanctions, especially from the United States.
Full-scale war would also be devastating for Ukraine, both economically and militarily. But declaring martial law is helping President Poroshenko shore up his popularity domestically in the lead-up to elections in March 2019. The elections are scheduled for March 31, and until recently polls suggested Poroshenko would be defeated. The initial plan for martial law was for 60 days, which would have significantly interfered with Poroshenko’s election campaign and could have prompted a postponement of the election. The current terms help to portray Poroshenko as strong leader who opposes Russia.
The clash in the Azov Sea is likely Moscow’s attempt to expose Poroshenko as weak. So far, Poroshenko has been able to gain as much political capital from it as possible. The incident also prompted the EU, NATO, United Nations, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to hold emergency meetings, calling on Russia to ensure unhindered passage through the Kerch Strait and on both sides to deescalate the situation. US President Donald Trump also cancelled his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires in response. All of this further strengthens Poroshenko at home.
This direct confrontation between Ukraine and Russia does serve as a warning signal that the over four-year-long conflict in and around Ukraine has the potential to escalate quickly into an uncontrollable situation if not addressed. This is now the time to increase diplomatic action to avert future flare-ups which could be a real threat to European security.
One immediate opportunity is to make full use of upcoming meetings in Europe—the first being the NATO meeting of allied foreign ministers that began today in Brussels. Ministers could use the meeting to demonstrate their solidarity with Ukraine and signal that further escalations will not be tolerated. Convening another NATO-Russia Council meeting soon would reinforce the outcomes of Brussels—bringing together the 28 NATO allies and Russia—and are a chance to clarify Moscow’s intentions in the Kerch Strait.
Second, the Normandy Format—which brings together Germany, Russia, France, and Ukraine—should come together at the earliest possible opportunity, with the upcoming OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Milan on December 6 and 7 being ideal. This group, originally set up to oversee the implementation of the Minsk Agreements for eastern Ukraine, continues to be the best option for direct communication between Ukraine and Russia. The US could also be invited to join these talks and to ask Russia to consider releasing the Ukrainian sailors.
Third, the US and Russia could make use of the OSCE meeting in Italy to hold bilateral talks. This would be particularly important since the Trump-Putin meeting in Buenos Aires was cancelled.
Finally, the EU Foreign Affairs Council is meeting on December 10 in Brussels. This would be an opportunity for EU member states to consider possible additional sanctions against Russia—however unlikely—and to call on Ukraine not to abuse the situation for domestic purposes.
Unfortunately for concerned parties, Russia and Ukraine are currently not interested in a settlement of the conflict, as they are both profiting in different ways from the circumstances. Nonetheless, diplomatic pressure will go far in avoiding an unintended war sparked by misinterpretation and miscalculation. Any long-term settlement is farther down the road, as Kiev’s active engagement will only happen after the elections in March. In the meantime, Poroshenko has to show that he is not powerless and is determined to oppose Putin.
Russia’s calculation is that the conflict should be escalated or calmed down based on the political exigency of preventing Ukraine from more closely allying with the West. From Putin’s perspective, this can be best achieved if Ukraine is consistently unstable, economically weak, and has a leader who is unable to stop the conflict in the east of the country. Flexing military muscle in the Azov Sea is yet another way for Moscow to tighten and loosen its grip on Ukraine at its wish.
Stephanie Liechtenstein is a freelance journalist and diplomatic correspondent based in Vienna, Austria.