Written by Marren Haneberg
On November 25, Russia and Ukraine clashed in the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. Though both nations use the strait, Russia blocked three Ukrainian ships’ access by placing a large cargo vessel under a Russian-controlled bridge. Russian border control ships fired on the Ukrainian ships, injuring six sailors. Russia seized two Ukrainian ships, detained twenty-four sailors, and later jailed twelve of these sailors (“Russian Court Jails…”).
Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the Kerch Strait bridge in May 2018. The bridge connects mainland Russia to Crimea, territory which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 (Ferris-Rotman and Stern). Russia claimed “Ukrainian ships were in its waters illegally” as Russia had “temporarily closed” the area for shipping (“Russia-Ukraine tensions rise…”).
Ukraine responded that Russia’s actions violated international law, citing a 2003 treaty granting both countries unrestricted access to the Kerch Strait. Ukraine sent two ships through the Kerch Strait in recent weeks “without incident” (“Russia-Ukraine tensions rise…”). The Ukrainian ships were “sailing from Odessa to Mariupol, a Ukrainian port on the Azov Sea” (“Ukraine-Russia sea clash…”). Ukraine said Russia purposely blocked “Mariupol and another port, Berdyansk” (“Ukraine-Russia sea clash…”).
The clash reflects a larger struggle between Russia and Ukraine. Russia violated international law and sparked the ongoing conflict between the two countries when its soldiers, monikered “little green men,” invaded Eastern Ukraine and seized Crimea in 2014. Similarly, in the Kerch Strait incident Russia violated international law and prompted conflict in territory that was not its own.
Russia’s actions in the Kerch Strait provoked Estonia, a country which, similar to Ukraine, is located close to Russia and feels threatened by Russia’s power. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid said Russia is orchestrating “war in Europe” and that the international community should not accept the incident “as business as usual” (“Russian Court Jails…”).
Both Russia and Ukraine called for a United Nations Security Council meeting after the clash. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged “both parties to exercise maximum restraint and to take steps without delay to contain this incident and reduce tensions” (“Russian Court Jails…”).
In ongoing contention between the two countries, the November 25 incident further degraded relations between the two countries. Soon after the incident, protesters gathered outside the Russian Embassy in Kiev, threw flares, and lit a car on fire. Ukraine’s military cabinet reacted to the skirmish with a 30-day martial law proposal, endorsed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The proposal calls for “partial mobilization of forces, a strengthening of Ukraine’s air defenses, and other unspecified steps ‘to strengthen the counterintelligence, counter-terrorism, and counter-sabotage [the Russian] regime’” (“Russian Court Jails…”).
By November 27, the Ukrainian government implemented martial law in 10 of 27 regions, including all regions bordering Russia or a coastline. Poroshenko, who has faced low ratings, can use martial law to cancel the March 2019 election. Using martial law, he can also oppress freedom of speech by restricting public demonstrations. If Poroshenko cancels the March 2019 election, he could quash demonstrations from Ukrainians angered by his continued unpopular rule. Ukraine also has a number of ethnic Russians, especially in East Ukraine. Due to the threat Russia’s creeping power poses on Ukraine’s security, Poroshenko also has an interest in suppressing pro-Russian protests to preserve his power.
Map shows regions Ukraine’s military cabinet implemented martial law November 28. Poroshenko could use martial law to maintain his power, despite his rule’s unpopularity. Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/west-rallies-behind-ukraine-calls-on-russia-release-detained-sailors-kerch-azov/29623124.html