Ukraine and Rus­sia: No big war in the off­ing

Truro Daily News - - OPINION - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Grow­ing Pains: The Fu­ture of Democ­racy (and Work)’.

The Rus­sian-ukrainian naval clash in the Black Sea is not go­ing to end up in a world war. Ukraine would love to be part of NATO, but the ex­ist­ing mem­bers won’t let it join. Why? Pre­cisely be­cause that might drag them into a war with Rus­sia.

Rus­sia doesn’t have any real mil­i­tary al­liances ei­ther. Var­i­ous coun­tries sym­pa­thize with ei­ther Ukraine or Rus­sia, but none of them have obli­ga­tions to send mil­i­tary help, and they are not go­ing to vol­un­teer.

Se­condly, there’s not even go­ing to be a full-scale war be­tween Rus­sia and Ukraine be­cause Ukraine would lose. Rus­sia has more than three times the pop­u­la­tion and its econ­omy is 10 times big­ger. The Rus­sian armed forces are far big­ger and vastly bet­ter armed. No sane Ukrainian would choose an all-out war with Rus­sia re­gard­less of the provo­ca­tion.

The Rus­sians ob­vi­ously have more op­tions, but con­quer­ing Ukraine is prob­a­bly the fur­thest thing from their minds. It has no re­sources they need, and if they oc­cu­pied the coun­try they would cer­tainly face an ugly and pro­longed guerilla war of re­sis­tance. They have noth­ing to gain.

They ac­tu­ally have a lot to lose, be­cause a full-scale in­va­sion of Ukraine would trig­ger a Western re­ac­tion that would come close to bankrupt­ing Rus­sia. NATO would con­clude that this was the first step in Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s plan to re­con­quer all of the for­mer Soviet em­pire in East­ern Europe, and start rearm­ing in a very big way. The Rus­sians would go broke if they tried to keep up.

So what we have here is re­ally just a lo­cal cri­sis. The Rus­sians started it in or­der to make a spe­cific lo­cal gain, and they know that they can win. They will not face ma­jor Western re­tal­i­a­tion be­cause it’s just not a big enough is­sue.

The ac­tual clash on Sun­day saw three Ukraini­ans in­jured, 29 oth­ers ar­rested, and three Ukrainian navy ships boarded and seized. The ships were try­ing to pass through a Rus­sian-con­trolled strait from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, a rel­a­tively shal­low body of wa­ter (max­i­mum depth 14 me­tres) that is about the size of Switzer­land.

Un­til the Rus­sians took Crimea from Ukraine four years ago, the strait had Rus­sian ter­ri­tory on one side and Ukrainian ter­ri­tory on the other. A treaty signed in 2003 said that both coun­tries had free ac­cess to the Sea of Azov and their re­spec­tive ports along its coasts, no per­mis­sion needed.

In 2014, how­ever, Rus­sia in­fil­trated troops into Crimea who pre­tended to be a new lo­cal mili­tia. They took con­trol of the en­tire penin­sula and its two mil­lion peo­ple, staged a ref­er­en­dum on whether it should be­come part of Rus­sia, and won it. The Ukrainian gov­ern­ment protested, but it didn’t have the troops or the nerve to re­sist the takeover by force.

In­ter­na­tional law does not ac­cept bor­der changes im­posed by force as le­git­i­mate, and Rus­sia has been un­der se­vere Western sanc­tions on trade ever since it an­nexed Crimea. Its econ­omy is in se­ri­ous trou­ble, but the an­nex­a­tion was im­mensely pop­u­lar in both Rus­sia and Crimea, and Putin will not re­verse it.

Since there was no land con­nec­tion be­tween Rus­sia and the Crimean penin­sula, Putin de­cided to build an 18-kilo­me­tre bridge join­ing the two sides of the Strait of Kerch. By a happy co­in­ci­dence, that would also give him the abil­ity to con­trol or even block ship­ping try­ing to get to Ukrainian ports on the north­ern coast of the Sea of Azov.

The bridge is now open, and Putin is ex­er­cis­ing that op­tion. The Ukraini­ans tried to send their (rather small) war­ships through to show that the treaty of free pas­sage signed in 2003 still ap­plies.

The Rus­sians didn’t ac­tu­ally deny that, but said they were clos­ing the strait tem­po­rar­ily for op­er­a­tional rea­sons. The Ukrainian war­ships pushed on, and the Rus­sians at­tacked them.

The Rus­sians are legally in the wrong, but they are go­ing to win this one be­cause Ukraine had al­most no navy left and no­body wants a big­ger war. Ukraine has im­posed mar­tial law in ar­eas that bor­der on Rus­sia for the next 30 days, but that’s mainly win­dow dress­ing. There may be fur­ther sanc­tions against Rus­sia, but that’s as far as it goes.

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