The Russian navy captured three Ukrainian military vessels and detained about 20 soldiers in the Kerch Strait in November 2018. Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the Russians have controlled this unique passage — shared by both countries — between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The incident sparked a new escalation of tensions between the two countries. Analysing the crisis, Dr. Michal Natorski spoke with Radio France International.
What is the background to the latest developments?
This situation that we are now observing is part of a latent conflict in eastern Ukraine and also, of course, related to the occupation of Crimea by Russia. This is not an accidental escalation and it is embedded within a broad and long-term context. It is almost four years since there has been a situation of high conflict in the area, with the Donbass Front being very hot. Despite the ceasefire agreement reached in Minsk in 2015, we are still observing exchanges of fire and artillery every day.
In whose interest is it to reignite these dormant tensions?
It is not in the interest of Ukraine, because it is a part of the country that was invaded and occupied by Russia. We also have to bear in mind that in a few months the presidential elections will be held in Ukraine. According to the Constitution, they should be held on 31 March 2019.
Would it help the Ukrainian President to ignite nationalism ahead of the elections?
It could be within the framework of a conspiracy theory to create a conflict to regroup some forces around a leader, but you have to keep in mind that this would be a dangerous policy for Ukraine. With very little effort Russia could occupy even more territory and create an open conflict. You have to remember one very important thing. The construction of a large and well-equipped military base by Russia and the opening of the bridge that joins Russian territory with the occupied Crimea by Russia creates many obstacles for maritime traffic in this area.
In other words, Russia as a long-term strategy wants to turn the Sea of Azov into a territory controlled absolutely by Russia despite the fact that there are bilateral agreements between Ukraine and Russia that the traffic in this area, particularly the Strait of Kerch, has to be open to all international maritime traffic. For many months, Russia has been hampering this maritime traffic in this area, blocking Turkish, Romanian and Bulgarian ships that want to access the ports not only of Russia, but also of Ukraine.
Who can stop the escalation — Macron, Merkel or Trump?
Nobody. This is the truth. Nobody is going to be able to pressure the parties. No one is going to stop in Russia if it decides they want to invade or carry out more manoeuvres in this area. Keep in mind that now, although there are three Ukrainian warships captured which in a normal situation is considered an act of war, it has captured 23 soldiers. It is just now creating an untenable situation because it is also breaching international agreements of all kinds regarding the treatment of other people, for example forcing soldiers to make statements on television, which contravenes international humanitarian law particularly the law on how to treat prisoners of war.
If Russia decides to act in some violent or premeditated way in this area, neither the United States nor the European Union will be able to stop it. The only situation that can stop Russia is the internal situation; that is, protests in the country. But it seems to be in the interests of Russia to reinforce nationalism behind Putin because of the economic and social situation. There have been many protests in Russia lately regarding changes in pension laws, which created a lot of unrest. Here Russia seems to be playing the card of nationalism to divert domestic attention from internal problems.
Adapted from an interview on Radio France Internationale (in Spanish)
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
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