Security and Foreign Policy

The Russian and Ukrainian Naval Clash, A Ticking Bomb in Europe’s Backyard

The incident between the Ukrainian and Russian naval forces on November 25th is a testament to the instability of Crimea, which is capable of jeopardizing the fragile balance in the area. Mario Ghioldi explains the hidden strategies of Poroshenko and Putin and the real possibilities of an escalation.


Despite the relatively small size, slightly larger than Vermont or New Hampshire, the Crimean peninsula has been an important geo-strategic point of contention among various actors, including Russia, the United Kingdom or the Ottoman empire. As the natural gateway to the Black Sea, the control of Crimea could be the natural access to Eastern Europe, Russia and the outpost facing Turkey, the Caucasus and Asia itself. From the 18thcentury to the present day, even with different international systems (multipolar or bipolar), it is no surprise that the region has been characterized by constant tensions amongst various powers.

Thus, the incident between the Ukrainian and Russian naval forces on November 25th is only the latest of a long series of clashes, substantially increased after the incidents of 2014. Nevertheless, the disputes in November, with the requisition of three Ukrainian military vessels, is the first direct military clash between Kiev and Moscow since the beginning of the conflict. Before this episode, the Kremlin generally denied its direct involvement in the conflict, although at the end of 2015 Putin admitted to the presence of military intelligence officers operating in the country.

One of the most relevant issues concerns the use and the navigation of the Kerch strait and the Sea of Azov, the former connecting the latter to the Black Sea. Before the Russian annexation in 2014, the use of the strait was regulated by the cooperation agreement, signed in 2003, which recognized the free navigation in the mentioned areas for mercantile and non-commercial vessels. Moreover, the document permits the right for both parties to inspect any boats on transit. After the episodes in 2014, Russia had unilaterally introduced new rules about the movement in the area, restricting the movement of Ukrainian vessels.

According to the Ukrainian sea port authority and the infrastructure Ministry of Ukraine, the commercial traffic in the area of Mariupol (one of the most important Ukrainian cities in the region) has dropped by 30% in the last year, worsening the economic and social situation in an area already affected by the consequences of the conflict. Already in 2016, Ukraine tried to change this situation, instituting arbitration proceedings against Russia under UNCLOS, claiming, that Moscow had interfered with “its rights as the coastal state in maritime zones adjacent to Crimea in the Black Sea, Sea of Azov, and Kerch Strait.” Yet, the validity of this suit depends on a Ukrainian claim of sovereignty over Crimea.

Furthermore, the presence of the Kerch Strait bridge, opened by Russia in 2015, worsens the situation, distancing the parts involved in the dispute. On the one hand, the structure obstructs the transit of cargo vessels to the Azov Sea, further  isolating the area of Mariupol. On the other hand, the viaduct connects Russia with the Black Sea Fleet Headquarter, situated in Crimea. Through the presence of this pivotal navy hub, Russia can send its vessels to the Mediterranean sea, in particular near Syria.

Both heads of state, Poroshenko and Putin, tried to take advantage of the incident domestically. With the impending March 2019 elections,  and Poroshenko’s distinct disadvantage shown by the polls, the Ukrainian president declared martial law on November 26th. But in the face of the strong criticism  coming from inside and outside Ukraine, Poroshenko was forced to scale down his policy. Thus, the martial law will be in force for 30 days and it involved just 10 Ukrainian departments (out of 27) adjoined with Crimea and Transnistria, where the Russian soldiers are deployed.

Putin as well, facing a dramatic drop in his popularity, would like to focus the Russian population’s attention on foreign policy, showing himself as a staunch defender of Moscow. As such, Putin is hoping to maintain Russia’s influence in the neighbourhood, recognizing Moscow as a primary international actor in the world order.

Despite Putin’s efforts, it is possible that Russia was not eager to provoke the incident or a possible escalation against Ukraine. In all likelihood, Moscow would prefer loosening of European Union’s economic sanctions, which were confirmed by the European Council on December 14th. Additionally, the Kremlin wants to show itself as a credible partner, in order to increase the cooperation with the Western countries in other world areas, in particular in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, the Kerch strait incident had the opposite effect for Putin, who now faces hostility from the European Union and the US. During the 25th Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe(OSCE), various European politicians, especially from the Eastern Europe, called for new and stronger sanctions against Moscow. Washington’s reaction has been strong as well, considering Trump’s desire to distance himself from the Kremlin with Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference hitting too close to home. Beyond calling off the meeting with Putin in Argentina during the G20, the Trump administration decided to deploy a warship in the Black Sea in order to monitor the situation.

The clash in the last few weeks has shown how the situation is not stable. In particular, consider how Russia could use a similar strategy to jeopardize the viability toward Odessa, where the most important Ukrainian vessels are deployed.

As stated before, both countries have interests in  avoiding a possible escalation. In the past, similar incidents in various contexts have been the triggers of dramatic and long conflicts. A reliable and realizable solution can be found through a stronger involvement of International and Regional organizations. Within this context, on December 18th, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution urging Russia to withdraw its forces from Crimea. Furthermore, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which already has already deployed a special monitoring mission to Donbass, could ask to extend its mandate to monitor the maritime background, thus trying to defuse this dangerous ticking bomb placed in Europe’s backyard.

Mario Ghioldi has an International Relations background through his studies at the University of Siena. In the last year, he worked with the Italian government’s Mission to the United Nations (3rd Committee) and in Nicaragua. He also joined the Salvadoran diplomatic team at the Rome agencies twice.  

Photo Credit: Moscow Times

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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