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The naval clashes can become a new front that directly involves the regular forces of both countries, as an extension of the ongoing conflict since 2014.
The Ukrainian parliament yesterday approved the introduction of martial law proposed by President Petro Poroshenko, a day after Russia fired several of its ships and captured 24 Ukrainian sailors. The incident has generated intense unrest in the country, where there have been riots and a group of protesters has come to burn vehicles and try to set fire to the Russian embassy in Kiev. As an extension of the confrontation between the two nations in the wake of the invasion of Crimea and the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, the clashes in the Sea of Azov , of which El Confidencial has already reported this summer, can become a new naval front that directly involves the regular forces of both countries.
What exactly happened?
The Russian and the Ukrainian versions agree on one thing: a ship of the Russian coastguard, the Don, rammed an Ukrainian tugboat that sailed alongside two military vessels towards the Kerch Strait, towards the port of Mariúpol, on the north coast from the Sea of Azov. According to Moscow, the Ukrainian ships were carrying out “dangerous maneuvers” that required the closure of the strait for security reasons. According to Kiev, their ships have the right to cross through Kerch following an agreement signed between the two nations in 2003, and the planned boarding would have taken place in international waters .
During the clash, the Russian navy opened fire on the Ukrainian ships, wounding six sailors , two of them seriously, according to Kiev. According to a senior Ukrainian official, three of the injured have been transferred to Moscow for medical treatment, while the others remain in a hospital in Kerch.
How has this situation been reached?
Ukraine denounces that the Russian navy has been detaining Ukrainian or international flag vessels for months in the Sea of Azov and interrogating its crews, with no other objective than to intimidate the sailors and shipowners and to dissuade them from operating in those waters. These retentions – whose average duration reached 54 hours at the end of July – can cause losses of between 3,000 and 13,000 dollars , according to Anton Shapran, director of the shipping company Maritime Logistics, based in Mariúpol, one of the most affected by the situation. Many observers equate it with a de facto naval blockade , in a space increasingly dominated by Russia.
The conflict escalated noticeably in March, when the Ukrainian authorities stopped a Crimean fishing boat that operated under the Russian flag, something that the Ukraine considers illegal. His captain and his crew were arrested. Moscow claimed that the Ukrainian navy had behaved like “Somali pirates” . Since then it is Russia who patrol the waters and board boats at convenience, which can legally be done following a cooperation agreement signed in 2003 between Vladimir Putin and the then Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.
What are the consequences of that block?
The trend has accelerated since the completion of the Kerch Strait Bridge , which links the Russian region of Krasnodar with Crimea, in May. At the end of that month, Russia deployed three military ships in the Sea of Azov, with the stated aim of protecting these infrastructures. The FSB, the Russian internal intelligence service, was commissioned to supervise such protection. According to the information available, those responsible for boarding affected vessels are border guards subordinated to the FSB .
The construction of the bridge has meant that 144 of the largest ships that used to operate in Mariúpol have been forcibly expelled from the Sea of Azov , as they can not pass under this structure of only 33 meters high. Both this port and the neighboring Berdyansk face a pronounced economic decline due to the reduction of its commercial activity, which some estimate up to 30% . Ukraine, however, looks almost helpless in this situation.
What does martial law imply?
Its approval has surprised many observers, since it had not been applied even at the height of the fighting in eastern Ukraine , in 2014. The state of exception implies a partial military mobilization, the immediate organization of air defenses, a strengthening of security at the borders with Russia, an information campaign and the monitoring of critical infrastructures. It also allows limits to freedom of assembly, movement and expression. Therefore, several Ukrainian opponents have expressed the fear that it can be used as an excuse to cancel some freedoms , at a time when the popularity of Poroshenko is low.
“The Ukrainian government must carefully weigh considerations of national security and human rights while responding to security threats in the Sea of Azov and implementing the provisions of the declaration of martial law,” said Marc Behrendt, regional director for the European and Eurasian programs of the American NGO Freedom House. “Any restriction on fundamental freedoms must be justified in a transparent and consistent manner with a democratic society, ” he said in a statement.
What does Russia say?
Yesterday, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned the “Kiev regime and its Western employers” of the “serious consequences” of the incident. “Clearly, this is a very well thought-out provocation that has taken place in a certain place and in a certain way and aims to create another focus of tension in that region, and a pretext to increase sanctions against Russia. We therefore issue a warning to Ukraine that the policy of Kiev, pursued in coordination with the US and the EU, with the intention of provoking a conflict with Russia in the waters of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, is plagued by serious consequences “, He said in a statement.
For its part, several Russian pro-government media have indicated that the purpose of the incident is to generate tensions that prevent a meeting between Putin and US President Donald Trump at the G20 summit, which is being held later this week in Argentina.
What will happen now?
It is difficult to predict how the situation may evolve, but the outlook is alarming. Yesterday, President Poroshenko assured that the Ukrainian intelligence services have evidence that the Russian armed forces are preparing a ground attack to establish a bridgehead in the east of the country and settle the profits of the pro-Russian rebels.
“The great story in all this is that the armed forces of Russia, in broad daylight, have launched an attack on Ukrainian navy ships. This is crossing a new line. Moscow, it is true, annexed Crimea with his army, but under the guise of ‘little green men’ without identifying. Moscow has been conducting a war not too covert in the Donbas. Yes, there are thousands of Russian officers there and they control the fighting, but Moscow denies it. But in this case, there is no refusal, “said John Herbst, the US ambassador to Ukraine between 2003 and 2006, to Newsweek . Other observers, however, believe that the Kremlin’s purpose is not so much to provoke armed conflict as forcing concessions from Kiev , such as the restoration of water supply to Crimea, cut off after the invasion of 2014.
However, a new factor could complicate things: it is unlikely that, with elections scheduled for next March and poor electoral prospects, Poroshenko is willing to negotiate too much. On the contrary, it could conclude that an escalation of tension can play in your favor. And the same goes for Putin, whose approval rating is the lowest since his coming to power after the controversial reform of the pension system , and perhaps has in mind a reissue of what happened in Crimea , when his popularity reached record highs 90%
Source: El Confidencial