Yet an­other act of ag­gres­sion by Putin that will go un­pun­ished

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - CON COUGH­LIN Con Cough­lin is the Daily Tele­graph’s de­fence and for­eign af­fairs ed­i­tor

It is typ­i­cal of the way Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin likes to do busi­ness that he should choose a cru­cial Euro­pean Union sum­mit as the mo­ment to launch his most re­cent act of mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion.

The lat­est mil­i­tary spat be­tween Rus­sia and Ukraine took place ear­lier this week when EU lead­ers were meet­ing in Brus­sels to sign off the Brexit deal that will al­low Bri­tain to un­der­take an or­derly with­drawal from the EU in March next year – as­sum­ing, of course, that British Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May can win par­lia­men­tary ap­proval for a deal many of her back­benchers have de­nounced as a sell-out to Brus­sels.

Brexit, so far as most of Europe is con­cerned, is a vi­tal is­sue, one that is likely to shape the fu­ture of the con­ti­nent for many decades to come, which ex­plains why it is cur­rently the pre-em­i­nent is­sue of Euro­pean pol­i­tics.

An ideal mo­ment, then, for Mr Putin to em­bark on his lat­est ex­er­cise in mil­i­tary mis­chief-mak­ing by at­tack­ing and seiz­ing three Ukrainian naval war­ships in the Kerch Strait which, un­der in­ter­na­tional law, is des­ig­nated as shared ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters.

Ac­cus­ing the Ukraini­ans of il­le­gally en­ter­ing what Moscow claims is solely Rus­sian ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters, Rus­sian war­ships are re­ported to have fired at two Ukrainian ves­sels and rammed a third.

A few days later the cap­tured Ukrainian sailors were brought be­fore a Rus­sian court af­ter be­ing filmed giv­ing what Kiev claimed were forced con­fes­sions, with 12 of the 24 cap­tured per­son­nel be­ing told they would be held in con­fine­ment for at least two months while their cases, and those of the other de­tainees, were as­sessed.

The ob­vi­ous goal of this lat­est act of Rus­sian sabre-rat­tling was to dis­rupt the abil­ity of Ukrainian ship­ping – both mil­i­tary and com­mer­cial – to pass be­tween the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. To do so, they must sail through the Kerch Strait, which sits in close prox­im­ity to the Crimean Penin­sula, il­le­gally an­nexed in 2014 fol­low­ing an­other act of un­pro­voked Rus­sian ag­gres­sion.

Un­der in­ter­na­tional law, the Kerch Strait is deemed to be shared wa­ters. But since oc­cu­py­ing Crimea, Moscow has adopted a dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tion, ar­gu­ing that Crimea and the Kerch Strait are now un­der Rus­sian con­trol.

Con­se­quently, in re­cent months ten­sions have been build­ing be­tween the Rus­sians and Ukraini­ans in the Sea of Azov over Moscow’s in­sis­tence that Ukrainian ves­sels must first seek per­mis­sion to op­er­ate in the area. In­deed, Rus­sia claims last week­end’s in­ci­dent, in which three Ukrainian ves­sels were seek­ing to make their way through the Kerch Strait to Ukraine’s naval base at Odessa, came about be­cause of the Ukraini­ans’ fail­ure to pro­vide the Rus­sians with prior no­tice of their ac­tions.

The Rus­sians fur­ther claim that the whole in­ci­dent was or­ches­trated by Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko to boost his do­mes­tic pop­u­lar­ity ahead of next year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. A com­mit­ted op­po­nent of Moscow, Mr Poroshenko has re­cently seen his pop­u­lar­ity slip. Now, fol­low­ing the lat­est clash with Moscow, he has once again taken cen­tre stage in Ukrainian pol­i­tics, par­tic­u­larly fol­low­ing his de­ci­sion to im­pose mar­tial law over parts of his coun­try amid fears the naval con­fronta­tion could lead to more se­ri­ous acts of Rus­sian ag­gres­sion, in­clud­ing a whole­sale in­va­sion of Ukraine.

Such scare­mon­ger­ing is, in all like­li­hood, over­stated and Rus­sia’s claims that Mr Poroshenko is ex­ploit­ing the cri­sis for his own po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fit will be tested if, as many of his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents fear, he uses the dis­pute as an ex­cuse to post­pone next year’s elec­tions un­til his po­lit­i­cal for­tunes have im­proved.

That said, we should still not lose sight of the fact that the Kerch Strait in­ci­dent is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of Mr Putin’s way of con­duct­ing acts of mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion – a well-or­ches­trated, pre­cise op­er­a­tion un­der­taken to achieve a spe­cific ob­jec­tive at a time when the world’s at­ten­tion is fo­cused on other, more press­ing is­sues.

We first wit­nessed the phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of the Krem­lin’s ap­proach in 2008 with Moscow’s mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in Ge­or­gia, which re­sulted in Moscow’s de facto an­nex­a­tion of the Ge­or­gian ter­ri­to­ries of South Os­se­tia and Abk­hazia.

Back then, the world was more con­cerned with on­go­ing con­flicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were oc­cu­py­ing the ma­jor­ity of the mil­i­tary re­sources avail­able to ma­jor western pow­ers, mean­ing that there was no po­lit­i­cal ap­petite in Wash­ing­ton or else­where to re­act to the Krem­lin’s mil­i­tary as­sault on Ge­or­gia.

Rus­sia’s in­va­sion of Crimea in 2014 is an­other oc­ca­sion when Mr Putin adroitly took ad­van­tage of the world be­ing dis­tracted by other events to make his move.

On that oc­ca­sion, it was the clos­ing cer­e­mony of the Sochi Win­ter Olympics, where many of the world’s lead­ers had as­sem­bled to at­tend the spec­tac­u­lar clos­ing cer­e­mony.

It was while they were nib­bling on canapes and sip­ping drinks that Mr Putin gave the or­der to send in the tanks.

And it is pre­cisely be­cause the Rus­sian au­to­crat has been al­lowed to get away these fla­grant breaches of in­ter­na­tional law that he be­lieves he can carry out fur­ther acts of mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion with im­punity.

There have, of course, been the usual calls from world lead­ers for both sides to show re­straint and even calls for the G20 sum­mit tak­ing place in Ar­gentina to con­sider im­pos­ing a new round of sanc­tions against Moscow.

I doubt, though, that there is any gen­uine de­sire on the part of world lead­ers to get in­volved in the on­go­ing dis­pute be­tween Rus­sia and Ukraine, and that they will be far more in­ter­ested in dis­cussing press­ing eco­nomic is­sues, such as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s trade war against China and the EU.

Which means, so far as Mr Putin is con­cerned, his lat­est is act of mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion will, like those that have gone be­fore, ul­ti­mately go un­pun­ished.

At­tack on Ukraine marks a pat­tern of be­hav­iour – strike while the world’s at­ten­tion is fo­cused else­where

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