Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard
When in the summer two ships of the Naval Forces of Ukraine passed through the Kerch Strait, Kiev tried to convince everyone that a “heroic breakthrough” took place. However, it quickly became clear that the “heroes”, in full accordance with the Russian demands and rules, gave notice about their passage in advance, requested permission and a maritime pilot, and in general behaved exclusively precautionary.
Back then the “victory” didn’t happen. But this doesn’t mean that the idea had been refused. And so in November the Naval Forces of Ukraine indeed went for a real breakthrough.
What is the idea behind the Ukrainian provocations?
Firstly, Kiev desires to create a precedent of the free, without obtaining Russian permission, passage of its warships through the Kerch Strait, which would confirm the allegedly existing rights of Ukraine for these waters, and at the same time it would confirm its claims to Crimea. After all, Ukraine can have the right to freely navigate through the strait only if Crimea belongs to it.
Secondly, Kiev means that Russia can counter the passage of its ships. In this option an armed conflict is desirable for Kiev. In such a case Ukraine can appeal to the world community and point to “Russian aggression”, which its ships and sailors became the “innocent victims” of.
Why does Kiev need to do this?
Ukraine needs the internationalisation of the conflict in the Sea of Azov. It is losing the standoff that began with the attack of the Ukrainian naval pirates on the “Nord“ seiner. At the same time, contrary to the hopes of the government in Kiev, Russia works strictly within the framework of international law. I.e., in actual reality neither the US nor the EU have a formal reason to intervene in the conflict. That’s why all their statements sound like a warning against a further escalation. It is precisely for this reason that a further escalation isn’t needed by Russia, but it is needed by Ukraine. Kiev, which lost the Azov crisis, needs international mediation in order to squeeze out concessions from Russia. Gunfire, sunk ships, and dead sailors are indeed what’s necessary for the purpose of motivating such mediation. The current norms of international law legalise the intervention of any country for the purpose of preventing or stopping a military conflict. Ukraine wants to receive an advantageous political position with a little bit of bloodshed among its sailors. Kiev stopped having compassion for its people long ago.
Thirdly, since Russia won’t be the first to use weapons against what Ukraine pathetically calls its Naval Forces, Kiev tries to accuse Moscow of violating international maritime law.
In reality, the convention on marine law stipulates the right of passage for warships through the territorial waters of another state. This is called “the right of free passage”, and for its implementation a simple notification is enough. It’s as if Ukraine is right, but in reality this same convention stipulates the right of any state to close its territorial waters, any of their zones, temporarily or constantly, for “free passage” or to introduce other restrictions of this regime. This is exactly what Russia did in the Kerch Strait, proceeding from the safety of both navigation and the Kerch Bridge, which a Ukrainian official and semi-officials threatened to destroy more than once. By the way, the US once tried to enter the territorial waters of the USSR near Sevastopol, also motivating their actions by the “right of free passage”. Back then this ended with a Soviet patrol boat ramming an American combat ship. So there already were precedents.
In this situation it is precisely the summer passage of Ukrainian ships through the Kerch Strait with the observance of all rules that weakens the position of the government in Kiev. In fact, Ukraine itself recognised the right of Russia to introduce restrictions on the passage of ships and vessels through the Kerch Strait, having obeyed these rules in the summer. That’s why today’s hysterics about the fact that it was again demanded to observe these same rules looks unconvincing.
But the government in Kiev, and more precisely Poroshenko, without the direct order of who this provocation wouldn’t have the chance of taking place, has no need to substantiate his position. He needs Russia to be the first to use its weapons against his Naval Forces. Only this gives the chance to appeal to the international community with a request to protect it from aggression.
By the way, Mogherini’s statement, which directly threatened Moscow with sanctions if the situation in the Azov water area sharpens, was supposed to give Poroshenko more confidence. The situation is very much reminiscent of August, 2008 in South Ossetia. Back then Condoleezza Rice also hinted at supporting the regime of Saakashvili in the event of war with Russia. By the way, I don’t think that the Americans lied. Simply the “wonderful Georgian” couldn’t prove he had been attacked by Russia, whose army entered the territory of South Ossetia and started “coercion to peace” the day after the Georgians started military operations against the Ossetian militia and Russian peacekeepers. The hot-blooded Caucasian guys who became euphoric from permissiveness admitted so many times live on TV that they had shelled the residential quarters of Tskhinvali from MLRS and barrelled artillery, and they admitted that it is precisely they who initiated military operations. After this the West, with all its desire, couldn’t pretend that Russia was guilty.
Today many rules and norms that were secretly governing the relations between superstates during the era of the Cold war aren’t in effect today. But at least one of them is still in effect. If your army was struck and it suffered losses, then you can even grind their attack into a powder, and nobody will interfere, because if today you are forbidden to respond, then tomorrow the soldiers, ships, and jets of the US, France, and Great Britain will fall under the strike of some “partisans” . And they also won’t be able to do anything.
That’s why the “civilised world” didn’t interfere on the side of Georgia, which killed Russian peacekeepers during the war of 08.08.08. That’s why Turkey, which downed a Russian plane, suddenly found itself in proud solitude. While it shelled Syrian troops over the border, the collective West was ready to support it against any respond from Russia. But it opened fire on Russia first, and Moscow acquired the right to give any response. Another thing is that instead of involving itself in an expensive senseless war, Russia could, with the help of economic sanctions and competent diplomatic actions, make Turkey an ally, albeit a situational one. But the West made it clear to Ankara that if Russia will respond in a military way, NATO won’t be on the side of Turkey, since it was the first to attack – i.e., it can’t be considered as a victim of aggression.
And this is where the fine line is, which Ukraine needs to observe during its provocations and shouldn’t cross in any circumstances. It very much wants a small armed conflict in the Azov or Black Sea and is ready to sacrifice for the sake of this any amount of its navigating means, or even its entire fleet. But it can’t be the first to shoot, because then Russia acquires the right to respond. And the West is already accustomed to the fact that Russia’s answers are so lightning and unexpected (asymmetric) that while live broadcasts are being prepared and columns are being written with accusations against Moscow of the disproportionate use of force, in turns out that there is already nobody to save and that there is a need to deal with the new reality.
That’s why Poroshenko, of course, very much wants to provoke a limited military conflict with Russia. He needs the conflict both to receive international support and to strengthen his position inside the country (attempts to mobilise voters around the commander-in-chief “repelling aggression”, or if they anyway don’t support him, then to receive a reason to cancel elections). But Poroshenko is limited by the condition of the impossibility of a formal attack carried out by Ukrainian military personnel against the troops or objects of the Russian Federation. A provocation or even an act of terrorism is one thing, the responsibility for which the government in Kiev won’t assume, but an open armed aggression against Russia is completely something else.
The danger of these games is that sooner or later the nerves of someone from among the Ukrainian military can not only fray, but they will for sure fray, and then shots will sound. After this Volker, Mogherini, and other “friends of Ukraine” will pretend that they were just passing by, and Poroshenko even won’t have time to eat his tie.
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