Rus­sia and Ukraine spar over the Kerch Strait

The main is­sue here is Ukrainian fragility, not Rus­sian ag­gres­sion

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - OPINION - By Ja­cob Shapiro

Rus­sia forcibly blocked three Ukrainian naval ves­sels from cross­ing the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov last Sun­day. Both coun­tries are blam­ing each other for the in­ci­dent: Ukraine ac­cuses Rus­sia of block­ing its ac­cess to the sea, while Rus­sia ac­cuses Ukraine of il­le­gally en­ter­ing its ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters. (The Kerch Strait lies off the east­ern tip of Rus­si­a­con­trolled Crimea.) What­ever the case, the Ukrainian ships have been seized and at least three Ukrainian sailors were in­jured in the in­ci­dent. Rus­sia tem­po­rar­ily cut off ac­cess to the Kerch Strait (it has since been re­stored) and called an emer­gency meet­ing of the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

Com­par­isons to the 2008 Russo-Geor­gian War, in which Rus­sia used Geor­gian provo­ca­tions to jus­tify mil­i­tary ac­tion in Ge­or­gia, are hard to avoid. The re­al­ity, how­ever, is more com­pli­cated than this. True, Rus­sia has been slowly so­lid­i­fy­ing its po­si­tion in Crimea since March 2014 and ap­pears to be pre­par­ing for po­ten­tial (per­haps in­evitable) mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in east­ern Ukraine. But it’s un­likely that Rus­sia is spoil­ing for a fight right now.

In­deed, de­vel­op­ments in Ukraine had been pro­ceed­ing in a di­rec­tion favourable to Rus­sian in­ter­ests. Ukraine’s econ­omy is strug­gling, and Kiev had to seek a new standby ar­range­ment with the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund in Sep­tem­ber to help meet its ris­ing debt pay­ments. Its navy is over­matched and just lost three more ships in the re­cent dust-up. Pres­i­den­tial elec­tions are slated for March, and polls sug­gest no can­di­date has more than 30% sup­port – it’s en­tirely pos­si­ble that a more pro-Rus­sian gov­ern­ment could come to power with­out Moscow lift­ing a fin­ger.

Mean­while, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin was sched­uled to meet with U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump at the G-20 sum­mit – the lat­est in a string of Rus­sian at­tempts to im­prove re­la­tions or at least re­duce U.S. sanc­tions.

Ukraine, on the other hand, has more rea­son to pro­voke a con­flict. The pri­mary rea­son is to per­suade its Euro­pean and Amer­i­can al­lies to con­tinue, and per­haps in­crease, their sup­port of the gov­ern­ment in Kiev, es­pe­cially as the cost of that sup­port rises.

Do­mes­tic pol­i­tics might also play a role. Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko sought par­lia­men­tary sup­port to de­clare a state of mar­tial law – which could de­lay the up­com­ing elec­tion in which Poroshenko’s sup­port ap­pears to be drop­ping. Ukraine has been through far worse in re­cent years than the Kerch Strait in­ci­dent with­out hav­ing to in­voke mar­tial law.

The con­flict in Ukraine is one of the main stick­ing points in U.S.-Rus­sia re­la­tions – it might even be the top stick­ing point, as ev­i­denced by Wash­ing­ton’s de­ci­sion to pro­vide Kiev with anti-tank mis­siles and other lethal weapons late last year. Rus­sia views Ukraine as part of its sphere of in­flu­ence, while the U.S. recog­nises no such sphere.

Aside from Be­larus, which is prac­ti­cally a Rus­sian prov­ince for now, and Moldova, which cur­rently has a proRus­sia pres­i­dent, there is no other weak point in East­ern Europe. The Baltic states, Poland and Ro­ma­nia are NATO mem­bers and have iron-clad se­cu­rity guar­an­tees. NATO is also mak­ing in­roads in the Balkans. Ukraine, there­fore, is the front line in the dis­pute be­tween Rus­sia and the West over east­ern Europe, and for all of the West’s pos­tur­ing and rhetoric, Rus­sia is more pre­pared for con­flict there than the West is.

But Rus­sia doesn’t need to push the is­sue right now. It has lost a great deal of in­flu­ence in west­ern Ukraine and Kiev, but in east­ern Ukraine, cul­tural, eco­nomic and lin­guis­tic ties still run deep – and get deeper the farther east you go. In ad­di­tion, Ukraine is un­der pres­sure from not just Rus­sia, but also Poland and Hun­gary, which both have on­go­ing diplo­matic dis­putes with Kiev. Rus­sia seems more poised for a po­ten­tial dis­in­te­gra­tion of the po­lit­i­cal sta­tus quo in Ukraine than an of­fen­sive takeover of the coun­try – a takeover that even Rus­sia’s con­sid­er­able mil­i­tary force couldn’t main­tain in west­ern Ukraine. The main is­sue here is Ukrainian fragility, not Rus­sian ag­gres­sion, and the Kerch Strait in­ci­dent shines a light on that fragility more than any­thing else. www.Geopo­lit­i­calFu­

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