By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
On November 25th a major incident occurred at Sea between Ukraine and Russia east of the Crimean peninsula, when three Ukrainian Naval vessels – coming from the Black Sea – wanted to pass through the Kerch Strait in order to take direction to the Azov Sea. Since the Russian-Ukraine treaty of 2003 both countries as well as international trade vessels can use the strait of Kerch for free passage to the Azov Sea.
Different versions circulate internationally about the sudden outbreak of conflict: According to Russian online news ,three Ukrainian naval vessels crossed into temporarily off-limits Russian territorial waters moving from the Black Sea to the Kerch Strait, thus violating art. 19 and 21 of the United Nations Convention of Sea Law. In an attempt to halt the Ukrainian naval vessels’ attempts to pass through the Kerch Strait, Russia, it was reported, deployed its own naval assets as well as combat aircraft, with SU 25 jets patrolling the area in the vicinity of the newly constructed Crimean Bridge. The 19 km long bridge, in whose vicinity the incident occurred, had been inaugurated in May of this year by Russian President Putin. According to Russian media, “as the ships approached the Kerch Strait FSB vessels went on to pursue the intruders, who failed to respond to demands to leave the area and proceeded to make ‘dangerous manoeuvers’ thus prompting the Russian side to open fire. The three ships were eventually detained and escorted to the port of Kerch.” The Russian Foreign Ministry accused Ukraine of an “unequivocal provocation and aggression” while Kremlin spokesman Peskov underlined that the Russian border guards acted in compliance with international law to curb foreign intrusion and protect the country’s territory from violators, who did not respond to any request to withdraw from the area. More recently Russia had warned Ukraine against any attempts to alter the status of the Sea of Azov as “inland waters” (covering an area of 39 000 sq.km) shared by the two countries. Such efforts would be deemed as a violation of international laws, Moscow added, urging Kiev to refrain from any steps to unilaterally establish a state border in the Sea of Azov which Russia does not recognize.
Tensions are brewing in this region since quite a while. In summer this year tensions mounted in the maritime region of the Sea of Azov, after Ukraine detained two Russian naval vessels heading to ports in Crimea, which Kiev considers to be Ukrainian territory. The incident with the vessel “Nord” was described by the Russian side as “maritime terrorism” and since then Russia has increased patrol off the country Azov Coast, which prompted Kiev to accuse Moscow of illegal searches. In the middle of August a lengthy article had also been published by the German Daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), warning of mounting tensions between Ukraine and Russia and speaking about “rearmament” of the Azov Sea. Some Ukrainian observers were expressing suspicion that Russia would use the area in order to impose an economic blockade on Ukraine, since in the area there are the two major harbor cities “Mariupol” and “Berdjansk” through which the Ukraine exports grain and steel products.
Poroshenko’s hype and imposition of Martial Law
The recent conflict has sent shock waves throughout the world; including a convocation of an emergency UN Security Council in which US UN Ambassador Nicki Haley unequivocally condemned Russian procedure; similarly strong accusations were made by NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, as well as by EU Commissioner Donald Tusks, while China as well as German Foreign Minister Maas tried to contain the situation, calling for calm and de-escalation. As much as the “West” may try to use this incident as a pretext to reaffirm its full support of Ukrainian Minister President Petro Poroshenko (e.g. a call for harsher sanctions, this time may be affecting the German /Russian gas project Nord Stream 2, which President Trump categorically wants to end) the Ukrainian Government with Minister President Poroshenko, after a meeting of the National Security Council, on November 26th a decree enabling “martial Law to protect the state” until the end of December 2018.
One of the aspects which this martial law that will last for 30 days -that can be prolonged- is to somehow blatantly intervene and affect the presidential election campaign in Ukraine that is due to start in 2019 (elections are scheduled for March 2019). According to the polls the popularity of the Minister President- given the immense corruption in Ukraine state institutions and his inability to bring Ukraine out of its economic crisis- is only at a level of a few percentage points in favor of him. So with such a “martial law” moves, he may calculate to stay in power for a longer time. Also Parliament can’t be reelected if martial law is in effect and Kiev can impose curfew upon its citizens. Poroshenko has also signaled that he is going to have a partial mobilization of the armed forces.
Calm and de-escalation
It is clear that the international community must react to this incident and that all efforts must be made to regulate the passage in the Azov Sea, in coherence with International Sea Law. One platform for discussion could be the meeting of the political directors in the Normandy Format (Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France) who are going to meet in Berlin November 27th in the Foreign Minister, in order to mediate and find a diplomatic /political solution. Another possibility is the use of the International Sea Court (Internationaler Seegerichtshof) in order to clarify the situation on the ground. The other option is the use of the upcoming G-20 Meeting in Argentina end of November where Russian President Putin will meet US President Trump, in order to find a solution that deescalates the crisis. Definitely it’s clear that the world can’t afford a new military escalation between Ukraine and Russia playing with fire that may enflame the whole world.