The timing was vintage Putin. As Russian maritime forces tangled with the Ukrainian Navy off the coast of Crimea on Sunday, Ukrainians across the country were busy commemorating the somber 85th anniversary of the 1932-1933 man-made famine, which killed millions.
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President Trump was in Florida playing golf and brooding about his sagging political fortunes. Prime Minister May was in Brussels fighting for her political survival, while France’s Emmanuel Macron was dealing with violent, nationwide street protests.
As with the forced annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, Russian forces and their proxies tend to strike when the West is looking the other way.
While the tensions in the Sea of Azov have been percolating for months — mainly with Russian forces increasing their presence in shared waters and by delaying and “harassing” commercial vessels entering and leaving Ukrainian ports — few people expected Moscow to open a new front in its conflict in Ukraine by attacking its naval vessels Sunday, resulting in the alleged ramming of a vessel, injuries on the Ukrainian side, the impoundment of three naval vessels and detention of 23 servicemen.
Earlier, this year, Russia, began constricting commercial traffic to two major ports on the Ukrainian coast, inflicting catastrophic economic damage to the country’s major gateway for exports of steel, iron and grain.
“By any standard, these are acts of war,” said Stephan Blank, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, who, like many, is calling for NATO to send its ships into the Black Sea and Sea of Azov in a show of force.
Sunday’s sea skirmishes represent the first incident of open aggression between the two sides in the almost five-year-old conflict, and triggered loud alarm bells in many European capitals.
Until now, Russian aggression in Ukraine has been characterized by “little green men” swarming over territory and grabbing key government institutions. Even to this day, Russia denies involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine (though the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has, on several occasions, spotted and reported on military convoys crossing the Russian border under cover of darkness).
What Sunday’s events also demonstrate is that the Ukrainian side is woefully unprepared to wage a fight with Russia at sea. Its navy can best be described as ragtag, says Parliamentarian Viktor Romaniuk, especially after Russia seized Crimea in 2014, and with it a large portion of Ukraine’s fleet. Embarrassingly, one of Ukraine’s frontline vessels in the Azov Sea — which is roughly the size of Switzerland — is a converted fishing boat with a lone machine gun on the back.
In the past few months, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has been criticized for dragging his feet on bolstering Ukraine’s defense capabilities on the sea, including the late acceptance from the United States of two former 110-foot Coast Guard cutters. If Russia were to mount an amphibious assault on Ukraine’s Azov coastline, it would face little opposition.
Ordinarily, the Poroshenko playbook to Russian incursions on Ukrainian territory has been to call for more Russia sanctions, request emergency meetings of the UN Security Council and convene whirlwind meetings with heads of allied countries. While all that occurred Sunday and Monday, Poroshenko reached for a tool which left many Western diplomats — indeed, many ordinary Ukrainians — shaking their heads in disbelief, a declaration of martial law.
At first, requesting Parliament for permission to declare martial law for a period of 60 days, sensing opposition, Poroshenko revised the petition for 30 days and promised in a nationwide address Monday to continue to respect civil liberties and media freedoms (though the media was told to “act responsibly and adequately in the current situation and will not attack Ukraine with the theses borrowed from Russian propagandists.”)
Poroshenko said the law “would not provide for restrictions of constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens.”
Potentially, the powers open the way for widespread compulsory military service (to be voted on separately), restrictions on the media and public demonstrations and suspension of elections.
In another last-minute concession to skeptical lawmakers, martial law will be limited to 10 border regions, along the border with the Russian-controlled Transnistria region of Moldova and those located alongside the Black and Azov seas.
If these powers are indeed required, many people are asking why such a draconian measure wasn’t requested when Crimea was seized or at the height of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and 2015.
This has led critics to suggest that the imposition of martial law is politically motivated. With his popularity ratings in the tank — this month Poroshenko received the highest “anti-rating” of all presidential candidates — he may be eager to show that he is still a worthy candidate.
Mattia Nelles, in an Atlantic Council blog Monday called “Why Martial Law Cheapens Ukraine’s Democracy,” says that the oblasts under martial law happen to be in regions “most critical of the president.”
Let there be no doubt: Poroshenko is a willy politician, at times projecting himself as part of the Davos elite and woefully out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Ukrainians — many of whom are struggling to make ends meet and expressing fatigue with the slow pace of reforms. He has been pummeled by some Ukrainian media outlets for allegedly taking secretive, expensive vacations and hiding property holdings in western Europe. Poroshenko has denied wrongdoing.
But Poroshenko has a knack for last minute coalition-building and warding off imminent political death — as he did on Monday to get parliamentarians to pass his martial law declaration. It remains to be seen whether this billionaire, so-called “Chocolate King” can emerge in time for elections in late March as a patriotic strongman fit to stare down the Russian bear.
So what happens next? While Russia has removed the blockade of the Kerch Strait and tensions have cooled down somewhat, there’s little sign of the Kremlin shelving its territorial ambitions– especially in the absence of strong action from the West. Taming the bear will likely require more targeted sanctions, travel restrictions on a wider circle of senior Kremlin officials and even limiting the overseas commercial transactions of Russian banks.
But despite angry pronouncements in the UN Security Council and in the precincts of NATO and the European Union, further punitive action is very doubtful, especially with the United States under retreat from its role as the world’s policeman. Like China, with its aggressive actions in the South China Sea, Russia will continue to act with impunity unless its behavior generates harsh consequences.
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