Political and Military Aspects of the Russia-Ukraine Kerch Strait Incident
The clash between Russian and Ukrainian naval forces on 25 November in the Kerch Strait is the most serious direct incident since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The incident shows Russia is aiming for total control of the Azov Sea, but its actions in recent days have caused further damage to its international image. However, such incidents in the near future cannot be excluded. If they happen, NATO and the EU should consider a reaction that goes beyond expressing support for Ukraine.

What is the significance of the incident?

Russia’s actions constitute an armed attack within the meaning of Art. 51 of the UN Charter. This is yet another act of Russian aggression against Ukraine, ongoing since the annexation of Crimea and initiation of the war in Donbas. It was, however, the first time in this saga that the Russian side did not deny it had directly participated. Contrary to the Russian position that there was a violation of its sea border, the incident physically took place in Ukrainian territorial waters in the Black Sea and in the Kerch Strait, signifying a violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Further, by blocking the Kerch Strait to all sea traffic, Russia violated the 2003 agreement concluded with Ukraine on joint use of the Azov Sea, which gives Ukrainian ships unhindered access to this water body.

What will be the likely consequences of the imposition of martial law in Ukraine?

In connection with the incident, martial law will be introduced in 10 regions—Chernihiv, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Odesa, Sumy, Vinnytsya, and Zaporizhzhya—for a period of 30 days starting from 28 November. Formally, it allows restrictions of civil rights in these territories (including a ban on public demonstrations and assembly), but it is rather unlikely to be rigidly enforced. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced the restrictions will depend on the situation, based on further acts of Russian aggression. He also ruled out military mobilisation. Unless extended, the state of martial law in these areas should not affect the campaign ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for March 2019, since it will expire before the official start. However, it may complicate the position of opposition candidates preparing for the campaign season.

How will Russia use the incident?

Russia has initially used the incident to disavow Ukrainian security policies, indicating that not it but Ukraine is responsible for increasing tensions in the region. It also requested an extraordinary session of the UN Security Council—at the same time, the same request was made by Ukraine—and accused Ukraine of violating Russia’s border, contravening international law and engaging in political provocations.

The Ukrainian reaction—the introduction of martial law and the political controversies related to it—will be used by Russia to further try to undermine the legality of the electoral process in the country. It will also use Poroshenko’s decision to impose martial law to call into question his character, charging he is limiting freedom of speech and assembly to simultaneously strengthen his powers for the election campaign.

What did Russia want to achieve militarily?

In the Azov Sea, Ukraine, besides its Coast Guard ships, has one search-and-rescue vessel, two small artillery boats, and a tugboat. Officially, Russia has only patrol vessels operated by the FSB Border Service, but it also draws on the potential of the mighty Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla.

The Russian actions were a clear demonstration of force aimed at Ukraine. They showed that Russia intends to take full control over the Azov Sea. It was also a test of forces protecting the annexed Crimea: During the incident, the FSB, the Black Sea Fleet, and air force units stationed in Crimea (attack helicopters and aircraft were used) cooperated to secure the Strait. Russia’s goal also included weakening Ukraine’s military potential in the Azov Sea, capturing three ships—the Nikopol, Berdyansk, and Yani Kapu—which were a significant part of the Ukrainian fleet stationed there.

What might the EU And NATO do next?

The EU and NATO are demanding that the Russian authorities release the captured Ukrainian sailors and the three vessels. In parallel, the EU may extend the sanctions imposed on Russia to include Russian ports located on the Azov Sea and/or ships using them. It may also consider increasing financial assistance for the southeastern regions of Ukraine, which will suffer significant economic losses as a result of the Russian blockade of the Kerch Strait. For its part, NATO may increase practical support of the Ukrainian armed forces, including the navy, and strengthen the Alliance’s military presence in the Black Sea. Individual NATO countries may consider selling additional arms to Ukraine to strengthen the Ukrainian navy or the country’s ability to defend the coast in the Azov Sea.