On Nov. 25, three Ukrainian naval ships made an unauthorized crossing through Russian territorial waters. The Russian Coast Guard took measures to force them to comply with the rules. They did not. There can be little doubt that Kiev sent those ships to deliberately provoke Russia. Every ship that passes through that waterway must contact the Kerch Sea Port authorities, report her route and destination, and be given permission to sail through. It’s really that simple, but Ukraine’s group of ships had not notified Russia in advance of their plans. Warnings to stop their dangerous maneuvering were met with a deaf ear. The Ukrainian vessels defiantly ignored the requests to leave Russia's territorial waters.
Kiev has rushed to accuse Moscow of “military aggression.” The incident immediately captured the headlines, with Western leaders raising their voices to back Ukraine without even offering any details about exactly what had happened or what had sparked this dangerous turn of events. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wasted no time to express the bloc’s “full support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, including its full navigational rights in its territorial waters under international law.” Canada, Poland, and Denmark, in addition to some other countries, were quick to join their voices to the anti-Russian choir. It serves their purpose to brush aside both the details as well as any attempts to try to gain insight into the real causes of this incident in particular or the deterioration of the situation in the Azov Sea in general.
On Nov. 26, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a bill imposing martial law. Once approved by parliament, it will remain in effect for at least one month. Afterward it can be extended. The Ukrainian president did not raise the question of imposing martial law in 2014, when Crimea requested via referendum that it be incorporated by Russia. Nor did he take that step in 2015 during the battle of Debalsevo Bulge in the heat of the fighting in the eastern part of the country. The ongoing conflict with the self-proclaimed republics has never prompted him to consider a state of emergency. But he found the recent sea incident grave enough to justify the imposition of martial law prior to the presidential election that polls indicate he has a slim chance of winning.
The move would curb civil liberties and give state institutions greater powers during the election scheduled for March 31, 2019, if it is not postponed. Presidential, parliamentary, and local elections, as well as strikes, protests, rallies, and mass demonstrations, are all forbidden during a time of martial law. The incident at sea may not be the only provocation that is planned. The situation along the border with the self-proclaimed republics began to deteriorate as soon as the reports about the sea incident started to pour in. Heavy shelling by Ukrainian forces of residential areas in eastern Ukraine was reported during the evening of Nov. 26.
Another motive — the provocation was staged to expedite the procedure of joining NATO. The 2003 Russia-Ukraine agreement, which states that the Azov Sea is considered to be the domestic waters of both the two countries, can be annulled. A bill to repeal the treaty was introduced in the Ukrainian parliament (Rada) last summer. It forbids any warship from entering the sea without the consent of both nations. If that agreement is torn up, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea would take effect. Russia’s and Ukraine’s territorial waters would extend for 12 nautical miles from their respective coasts. The interior of that sea would become international waters, allowing NATO ships to enter the Azov Sea without restrictions.
Kiev also hopes that military aid from NATO countries will increase, allowing it to build a powerful navy and coastal defenses. It would like to have an international monitoring mission stationed in the Azov Sea, probably under the auspices of the OSCE and with the participation of navies that are unfriendly to Russia. Another thing the Ukrainian president would like to see happen is for US President Trump to cancel his meeting with Russian President Putin at the G20 summit in Argentina.
What has prompted Kiev’s actions? It was the backing of the West. On Oct. 25, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the Azov Sea to express its support of Ukraine. On Nov. 19, UN High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini stated that the EU foreign ministers had discussed taking relevant “targeted measures” against Russia due to the situation in the Azov Sea. The US continues to expand its military assistance to Ukraine. The US already has a military facility in Ochakovo. Once the Oliver H. Perry-class frigates arrive in Ukraine, they will be followed by American naval instructors. The US presence and military infrastructure will gradually expand. Great Britain is doing the same thing.
The West’s support is encouraging Ukraine to escalate the tensions. Ukraine’s Constitutional Court has just okayed an amendment to proclaim NATO and EU memberships as official foreign-policy goals. If approved by parliament, the Minsk accords will then become null and void, because Russia originally agreed to comply with them on the condition that Ukraine remain a neutral state.
No one needs such heightened tensions in an area with so much ship activity. All seafaring nations want shipping lanes to be free and protected by law. The more political and military support Kiev gets, the greater the chance that a spark will kindle a fire in the Azov Sea that will spread further. The responsibility rests with those who are egging Kiev on and thus whipping up tensions in pursuit of political goals.