By Vincent Pisani
On November 25th, a critical incident occurred between the Ukrainian Navy and the Russian Coast Guard in the Kerch Strait. This incident ended with the Russian Coast Guard seizing three Ukrainian naval vessels and detaining each of the ship’s crew. Russia claims that Ukraine is responsible for this incident because their warships illegally entered Russian territorial waters, in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea(UNCLOS). However; the Ukrainian government blames Russia for the incident and claims that they warned Russia ahead of time that these vessels would be transiting the strait. This evolved into a crisis on November 28th following a report from the Ukrainian Ministry of Infrastructure that almost three dozen civilian vessels were being denied access to the Kerch Strait.
It is important to note the significance of the Kerch Strait to Eastern Ukraine’s economy. The strait is a major trade artery for the eastern port cities of Mariupol and Bendyansk. The apparent closing of the strait to Ukraine bound sea traffic will significantly hurt the economy of both port cities, which have already seen some economic hardship due to ongoing fighting in Donbass. This also potentially puts pressure on the Ukrainian government to act in a decisive manner to bring an end to this crisis. However; this in turn increases the likelihood of a disastrous miscalculation as this crisis unfolds.
It is the position of the Russian government that the actions of their Coast Guard were intended to protect their sovereignty and are proper under Articles 19 and 21 of UNCLOS. These articles respectively define innocent passage and clarify what laws and regulations a costal state may enact in regard to innocent passage. This response is likely due to their annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, which puts Russia in control of both landmasses that comprise the strait. However; it is unlikely for the UN to support Russia’s position due to their opposition to the annexation of Crimea. More importantly, there is a standing treaty between Russia and Ukraine that guarantees both countries access to the Kerch Strait. Based on recent events and statements made by the Russian government it should be assumed that they now view this treaty as void.
Militarily, Ukraine does not have the capability to contest the Kerch Strait. The Ukrainian Navy, even before the initial confrontation on November 25th, had very few surface combatants available. This has only been exacerbated by their recent losses. This means that Ukraine’s only viable kinetic option is on the ground in Donbass against the Donetsk Peoples Republic and Luhansk Peoples Republic. This is possible due to the lack of an active cease-fire agreement between the Ukrainian government and separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine. Furthermore, the apparent ties between these separatist and the Russian government makes them a reasonable target to degrade Russian influence within Ukraine without escalating to a direct military confrontation with Russia. However; Russia could still directly intervene in the conflict if the survival of these elements is threatened. Overall, it is unclear how the Ukrainian government will respond to this provocation beyond the November 26th declaration of martial law for border regions. Because of this, it is unlikely for us to know anything for sure until a verifiable mobilization of Ukrainian military forces is observed.
Based on the publicly available information, there is a reasonable possibility that the Ukrainian government will escalate their ground war against separatist elements in Eastern Ukraine sometime in the next two weeks. However; it will be difficult to understand the extent of this without any verifiable information on troop movements or a statement of intent from the Ukrainian government beyond the establishment of martial law. Another small-scale naval confrontation around the Kerch Strait is unlikely due to a lack of Ukrainian surface combatants. It is more likely to see these forces allocated to defensive deployments or remain at anchor in the short term. The upcoming G20 Summit will prove to be critical in deciding the course of this crisis. Because of this, no definitive forecast of the Kerch Strait Crisis can be given until after this weekend. There is a possibility that negotiations in the intervening days could lead to the release of Ukraine’s sailors and de-escalate the situation enough that a formal dialogue over the Kerch Strait may take place. However; the return of Ukraine’s warships is doubtful in the short-term.