On Nov. 25, the Russian Coast Guard opened fire on three Ukrainian ships attempting to sail through the Kerch Strait, a small passage between Russia and Ukraine, wounding crew members and seizing the vessels, in what has constituted a major escalation in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The incident comes on the heels of continued spats of aggression at the hands of Russia, all stemming from the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko acted quickly, appealing to Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, to impose martial law, a power he was granted on the condition that he did not attempt to postpone the upcoming elections. Ukraine is now operating under martial law in the 10 provinces of the border regions, allowing the government, and by extension the Ukrainian military sweeping powers. It is unclear how long martial law will last, with the New York Times reporting that a different version of the law stipulated 60 days, whereas only 30 days were approved by the Verkhovna Rada.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has responded by accusing Poroshenko of playing up the event, claiming that he is utilizing this event as an opportunity to boost his poor chances in the elections set to be held next March. According to Kyiv Post, Poroshenko trails behind many other candidates, coming in fourth among the contestants, with only 9.8% of those polled saying they would vote for him. The Russian state claimed they were simply following protocol, citing the need for Ukranian vessels to request permission in advance, adding that the Ukrainian boats had trespassed into Russian territory.
Poroshenko has appealed to NATO, urging them to send ships to the area to help restore order. NATO responded by expressing support for Ukraine, with the Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, delivering a press conference where he voiced the allies support for “Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.” He went on to say that “we call on Russia to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian ports” and that they “allow freedom of navigation for Ukraine in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait.” Stoltenberg further expressed the international consensus regarding the conflict, stating “Russia must end its support to militant groups and withdraw all its forces from Ukrainian territory,” ending by saying, “We call for calm and restraint.”
The situation in the surrounding regions has been tenuous, as relations have been fraught with animosity on the part of Ukrainians since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, where Russian troops seized control, establishing two federal subjects; the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol. This seizure was legitimized by the Russian state as allowable, because the majority of the population in Crimea was composed of ethnic Russians, who voted in favor of a referendum to join Russia.
Ukraine’s recent history has been marked by periods of unrest, including the 2014 revolution, which resulted in removing President Yanukovych from power, though even after he fled the country to Russia, he claimed he was still the legitimate president. During this time there was also widespread unrest in eastern and southern Ukraine, marked by massive protests from pro-Russian separatist factions who called for the unification of parts of Ukraine and Russia. The highest concentrations of these protests, and of ethnic Russians, was in Crimea and the Donetsk oblast.
Soon after the revolution and pro-unification protests, Russian troops invaded Crimea, occupying key areas with armed gunmen. Though we now know they were Russian troops, it was unclear at the time, as they purposefully lacked insignia bearing the usual Russian identifying factors. They quickly stormed military bases, airports, and other significant areas in their takeover. The Crimean Supreme Council was seized, with Russian forces disbanding the Council of Ministers and appointing a new pro-Russian Prime Minister for the area. This new Supreme Council declared Crimea’s sovereignty and right to self-determination, as they hastened to a referendum. This referendum passed, unifying Russia and Crimea, acting as an enormous assault upon international standards and the Ukrainian government’s sovereignty.
In order to better understand the situation unfolding and the possible reasoning behind this escalation, The Point News reached out to Russian History Professor, Jeffrey Eden, Ph.D. He began by noting that increasing control over the Sea of Azov has been a long-term goal for Russia, explaining that Russia’s seizure has occurred in incremental measures, all the while gauging international responses. He noted that though “the endgame is uncertain; it could be anything from holding Ukrainian ports perennially ‘hostage’ for financial or political purposes, or as the Ukrainian president warns–annexing more Ukrainian territory.”
Eden also articulated the positive effect this crisis may have for the Ukrainian president, noting that “he’s keen to show himself as the country’s courageous defender,” citing the claims that some are concerned he would utilize martial law to postpone the elections. In terms of the conflict’s impact on Russia, Eden posited the possibility of this crisis acting as a distraction from domestic issues Putin may be facing, such as the newly announced plan to raise the national pension age by five years, an action that sparked protest and further crackdowns.
Eden stated that “this crisis may well bolster support for Putin in the short-term,” explaining that “his most popular tune is about how Russia is encircled by hawks and vultures, invariably the U.S. and its allies.”
Only time will tell with the situation still unfolding, as Putin attends the G8 summit, and reports of Ukrainian soldiers digging trenches surface.