Russia has been waging low-intensity war against Ukraine for over four years. During that time, Moscow has endeavored to disguise its role in the struggle, using cutouts — “little green men” who had no obvious ties to Russia but enjoyed its support — and tactics — cyberattacks and economic pressure — that fall short of open conflict. Russia shed the fig leaf last weekend when it seized three Ukrainian Navy ships in the Kerch Strait that links the Azov and Black seas. The move is a challenge not just to the government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, but to the West: It is no coincidence that the incident occurred days before Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Group of 20 summit in Argentina. It must be met with steely determination.
Baldly stated, Russia seeks a sphere of influence in Eastern and Central Europe. It believes that countries on its periphery, and especially those that were part of the Soviet imperium, should be responsive to Russian interests and respect its concerns.
Ukraine, which seeks closer ties to the European Union and NATO, is a direct challenge to that order, and must be brought to heel. To do so, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and has supported separatists fighting in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. It is estimated that over 10,000 lives have been lost in the fighting, and the war undermines the legitimacy of the Poroshenko government: A leadership that cannot protect its own territory does not deserve to govern.
Moscow has increased pressure on Kiev in recent months. The “little green men” have increased artillery and rocket attacks on Ukrainian targets in Donbass. Ukrainian companies have been sanctioned by Russia. Elections have been held in rebel-held territory, a violation of a 2015 agreement that was supposed to reduce tensions.
Sunday’s seizure of the three Ukrainian Navy ships is the most blatant and direct provocation. The two countries agreed in 2003 on joint control of the strait, but Ukraine charges that Russia is harassing sea traffic to put additional pressure on eastern Ukrainian cities that rely on maritime trade.
Russia says it is merely defending against terrorist threats. Moscow asserts that the ships were seized when they ignored instructions of a Russian pilot and illegally entered Russian territorial waters; some Russian officials claim the Ukrainian behavior was a deliberate provocation. After seizing the ships and detaining 24 sailors — who “confessed” on Russian TV to being intelligence agents and planning provocations — Russia temporarily blocked the strait by positioning a freighter under a bridge that spanned the waterway, effectively cutting off Ukrainian ports.
Ukraine responded by imposing 30 days of martial law in several regions in the east, and warned that a Russian invasion might be in the planning. That move fueled speculation that Poroshenko — whose popularity is in single digits — is exploiting the crisis for domestic political advantage.
The same can be said for Putin. His popularity has also fallen in the wake of pension reforms. The annexation of Crimea has been a net drain on the struggling Russian economy. Falling oil prices will only compound domestic economic pressures.
The decision to throw down the gauntlet to Ukraine is a challenge to the West as well. Putin is reckoning that no Western government is prepared to defend Kiev and will accept his authority in that region. It looks like a smart bet. The United States and the EU have called on both sides to exercise restraint, implying that both are at fault. U.S. President Donald Trump has said that “I don’t like aggression” and has announced the cancellation of a planned meeting with Putin at the G20. Some European governments have taken a harder line against Russia, but there is little appetite for tougher sanctions against Moscow.
Japan has also been fairly quiet. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kotaro Nogami called on “all parties involved” to exercise restraint, and hoped that “the situation will calm down.” Russia was not mentioned by name.
While diplomatic officials in Tokyo concede that Russia is attempting to unilaterally change the status quo — which is condemned when China is the guilty party — they also argue that Ukraine is a distant problem and Tokyo should prioritize good relations with Moscow on the eve of talks between Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the G20 and the recent agreement to proceed with bilateral talks to settle the Northern Territories issue. In other words, the Japanese government is validating Putin’s logic that most countries will leave Ukraine to fend for itself. It makes sense — until those other countries find themselves in Putin’s crosshairs.