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Worldview: Understanding Putin’s intentions in the Kerch Strait crisis

The world held its breath Sunday when Russian warships opened fire on three Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait, injuring at least six. The Russian crew then boarded the ships, detaining over 20 Ukrainians in the process.

Kiev was understandably indignant at this perceived transgression, calling for international action against Russia while also enacting temporary martial law in regions bordering Russia and its allies in Belarus and Trans-Dniester.

The Kremlin quickly defended itself, arguing that the Ukrainian vessels had intentionally provoked Russia by entering Russian waters in an attempt by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to justify implementation of martial law and gain support ahead of the presidential election in March 2019.

In his first public statement about the crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin said to a financial forum in Moscow that the incident was “without doubt a provocation” by the Ukrainians.

Regardless of the veracity of Kiev and Moscow’s claims, the brewing crisis has the West uneasy. Some see Russia’s actions in the Kerch Strait as a crisis fabricated by the Kremlin in order to justify further Russian involvement in Ukrainian affairs.

To the uninformed observer, the decision to block Ukrainian access to the Azov Sea may seem like a sudden and aggressive move intended to elicit a Ukrainian response. However, the unfolding crises are the result of a far more nuanced backstory that one must consider when assessing Putin’s motives.

First of all, it is crucial to understand that Russia’s position in the Donbass region is ideal from Moscow’s point of view. One of the cornerstones of Putin’s foreign policy is the instigation and maintenance of “frozen conflicts” in areas formerly under Soviet control.

Russian-supported entities spawned from frozen conflicts in Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), Moldova (Trans-Dniester) and most recently Ukraine (Donbass) weaken anti-Putin states, discourage NATO from interfering in apparent quagmires, and grant Putin puny yet strategically valuable allies.

It is in this sense that the war in the Donbass is an end rather than a mean for Putin.

In this context, the Kerch Strait crisis ought not be viewed as a carefully fabricated event designed to justify an increased Russian presence in eastern Ukraine, but rather as a continuation of Russia’s campaign since 2014 to weaken Ukraine and prevent them from joining NATO.

The Kerch Strait crisis has actually been unfolding since 2014, when Russian troops occupied Crimea. Construction began on a bridge connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland that opened in May. This bridge is a component of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine as it cannot permit vessels over 33 meters tall to pass underneath it.

Because of this, maritime traffic out of Ukraine’s two ports in the Azov Sea — Mariupol and Berdyansk — has decreased by 15 percent and 33 percent, respectively, since 2015, leading some analysts to refer to the bridge as a “quasi-blockade.” Such a blockade will have a dramatic effect on the Ukrainian economy, as more than 80 percent of Ukraine’s exports pass through the Azov Sea.

Now that Russian vessels seem poised to block off Ukraine’s access to the Azov Sea completely, Ukraine and its regime will be severely weakened in the lead up to the 2019 presidential election. Putin now holds the cards — should Ukraine re-elect incumbent President Poroshenko, the country will be crippled having lost access to the Azov Sea.

This, coupled with a Russian propaganda initiative — dramatically titled “South Wind” — designed to inculcate the sentiment that Kiev is to blame for the deterioration of Russian-Ukrainian relations, has created a strong incentive for the Ukrainian electorate to vote for a pro-Russian candidate in 2019.

Poroshenko is playing into Putin’s hands by enacting martial law and calling for international support. As the crisis continues to unfold, Poroshenko will appear increasingly weak and voters may blame him for the economic crisis.

Given that NATO is unwilling to commit itself to the Ukrainian conflict, Ukraine will be forced to fight Russia alone. The unfortunate reality is that Ukraine cannot win this fight by conventional means.

With the current escalation of the crisis, Putin has reenacted the infamous Melian Dialogue between himself and Kiev. Ukraine can either choose to submit to Putin’s will by voting Poroshenko out of office and distancing itself from NATO, or reject him and suffer the economic consequences of a blockade of the Sea of Azov.

Either way, Ukraine seems poised to fail.

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