Russia-Ukraine Confrontation at Sea Raises the Stakes

Will Trump confront Putin at the G-20 Summit meeting?

A military confrontation erupted directly between Ukrainian and Russian military forces last Sunday off the coast of the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula when two Ukrainian cutters and a tugboat heading from one Ukrainian port to another attempted to pass through a narrow sea passage known as the Kerch Strait. The strait is close to the Crimean Peninsula that separates the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Russia would not let the ships pass, blocking them with a grounded tanker under a bridge Russia had constructed linking the Crimea Peninsula it had illegally annexed in 2014 with the Russian mainland. Not able to proceed to their destination because of Russia’s blockage, the Ukrainian cutters reportedly turned around. According to Ukraine’s account, Ukraine’s vessels were heading back to where they came from when Russia fired on the ships, injuring several sailors. Russia then seized the vessels, with what has been reported to be either 23 or 24 sailors on board. A Russian court on Tuesday ordered 12 of the captured sailors to remain in Russian custody for at least two months. The other captured sailors could meet the same fate when they are expected to appear in Russian court on Wednesday. If convicted on charges of colluding to cross Russia’s border illegally, the sailors could be jailed for as long as six years.

Although all-out war has not broken out yet, the region is on edge as Russia tries to leverage its control over Crimea on the ground to establish its claims of territorial dominion over the surrounding waters. Russia is also demonstrating its power over Ukraine’s economy. Russian President Vladimir Putin is ratcheting up pressure on Ukraine’s economy by limiting its freedom to send ships to ports on the Sea of Azov. Freedom of passage is necessary for Ukraine to support heavy industry on which thousands of Ukrainians depend for their livelihood. By land and sea, Russia is tightening the noose around Ukraine’s neck.

On Monday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared martial law in the troubled areas of his country bordering Russia for 30 days after receiving approval from Ukraine’s parliament, a move that Russia condemned as a provocation. "The imposition of martial law in various regions potentially could lead to the threat of an escalation of tension in the conflict region, in the southeast" of Ukraine, President Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters.

On Tuesday, President Poroshenko warned Russia that, if necessary, Ukraine “will fight for our freedom, we will fight for our democracy, we will fight for our soil. The Russians will pay a huge price if they attack us."  He is counting on more support from the Trump administration, which has already provided some lethal arms to Ukraine. "I count on the United States," President Poroshenko told NBC News. "I count on the United States people. This is the international obligation of the United States."

It is unlikely that the U.S. itself or with its NATO partners would get directly involved  militarily in the conflict unless it escalates to the point of threatening any of the current NATO members. President Poroshenko should be aware of this, but his government is at least hoping for increased sanctions against Russia and possibly more weaponry. President Poroshenko also wants President Trump to deliver this message personally to President Putin if and when they meet at this week’s G20 summit in Argentina: "Please, get out from Ukraine, Mr. Putin.”

So far, strong verbal condemnations by Western leaders have not been matched by any public indications that further punitive actions against Russia are under immediate consideration. President Trump was initially restrained in his comments on the military confrontation. He told reporters on Monday: “We’re not happy about it at all. Not at all. We’ve let our position be known, and we’re not happy about it. Either way, we don't like what's happening. And hopefully they'll get straightened out. I know Europe is not—they are not thrilled. They’re working on it too. We’re all working on it together.” On Tuesday, however, President Trump indicated that he might call off his scheduled meeting with President Putin at the G-20 summit because of Russia’s actions, depending on what he sees in a report that is being prepared on the confrontation. “I don’t like that aggression. I don’t want that aggression at all,” he said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned on Monday what he called "this aggressive Russian action" and urged Russia to abide by Ukraine's "internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters." He also said that Russia should return the vessels and sailors to Ukraine, advice which Russia appears intent on ignoring. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has been the Trump administration’s strongest voice so far in taking on Russia for what she said was Russia’s “arrogant act” of impeding Ukraine’s lawful transit through the Kerch Strait. In stinging remarks she delivered on Monday at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that Ukraine had requested, Ambassador Haley characterized Russia’s actions violating Ukraine’s sovereign rights and international law as “a part of a pattern of Russian behavior that includes the purported annexation of Crimea and abuses against countless Ukrainians in Crimea, as well as stoking conflict that has taken the lives of more than 10 thousand people in eastern Ukraine.” The United States’ Crimea related sanctions against Russia will be maintained, she said. “Further Russian escalation of this kind will only make matters worse. It will further undermine Russia’s standing in the world. It will further sour Russia’s relations with the U.S. and many other countries. It will further increase tensions with Ukraine.” She said she was reflecting the concerns of the highest levels of the U.S. government, after having spoken to President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo before the Security Council meeting.

Russia tried to highjack the Security Council meeting by attempting to ram through its own meeting agenda as the first item of business.  Russia wanted to get out in front and blunt Ukraine’s complaint of Russian aggression by portraying itself as the victim of Ukraine’s alleged invasion of Russian territorial waters. Russia’s effort did not go well. It failed on a procedural vote, illustrating Russia’s relative isolation at the Security Council. Only China, Bolivia, and Kazakhstan sided with Russia on the procedural vote. Nevertheless, Dmitry A. Polyanskiy, the First Deputy Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN, made his case before the meeting requested by Ukraine got under way.

Deputy Representative Polyanskiy claimed in his remarks to the Security Council that Ukrainian naval vessels had “illegally” crossed into Russian territory, ignoring the efforts by Russian ships to warn them off. “Our country has never struck the first blow, but it can stand up for itself,” he told the Security Council. “The population of the Crimea, as well as other regions of Russia, is under reliable protection,” he declared. Using a colorful metaphor, Mr. Polyanskiy compared the discussion at the UN Security Council to “finding a black cat in a dark room.” He added, “You are condemning a Russian act of aggression but you are not talking about why we met for this meeting,” apparently referring to the meeting that Russia had tried in vain to hold first accusing Ukraine of aggression.

“It’s clear - organize provocation and once again accuse Russia of everything, inflate his own ratings and put himself forward as the savior of the nation,” Mr. Polyanskiy said, referring to Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko’s reportedly low popularity.

Volodymyr Yelchenko, the Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the UN, said that Ukraine has a right to enjoy free unhindered passage through the Kerch Strait under both a bilateral agreement between Ukraine and Russia and under international law. He came to the Security Council meeting prepared to present evidence that Russia was at fault for the military confrontation at sea. He referred to a video showing one of the Ukrainian vessels, waiting to cross the Kerch Strait linking Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, being rammed by a Russian coast guard ship. He also read from excerpts of audio commands in which Russians were directed to shoot to kill. Ukraine’s ambassador called on the international community “to implement a new set of sanctions aimed at addressing the situation in the region, including against Russia’s Azov ports.” While he said Ukraine wants to settle the dispute peacefully, he warned that Ukraine was “ready to use all available means in exercising our right to self-defense.”

After the Security Council meeting adjourned, Russian First Deputy Permanent Representative Polyanskiy and Ukrainian Ambassador Yelchenko answered questions from the press. In response to my question, Mr. Polyanskiv did not outright deny the validity of the audio and video evidence Ambassador Yelchenko had mentioned to the Security Council. Instead, he said that Russia would be investigating the incident and report its findings. In response to another journalist’s question, Mr. Polyanskiv held out the possibility that Russia would prosecute a number of the detained Ukrainian sailors, which appears to be the course that Russia has decided to follow. He said that the sailors “were acting in provocation and they were conducting a crime according to the laws of the Russian Federation. Each and every sovereign country has [a] right to prosecute people who conduct crimes and unlawful acts on their territory, that’s our approach.” When asked about the Russian envoy’s claim, Ukrainian Ambassador Yelchenko said the Ukrainians had done nothing wrong. “What are they claiming, that Ukrainian sailors committed a crime by crossing the Russian border?” he asked rhetorically. “Where is this border? It does not exist.” Even if there is no immediate escalation of fighting, Russia’s prolonged detention of Ukraine’s sailors is likely to become a flashpoint for Ukraine and for Western nations concerned with what amounts to hostage-taking. President Trump himself has shown concern and taken action to secure the release of Americans held hostage abroad.

Perhaps the best course for President Trump would be to proceed with his scheduled meeting with President Putin, but to use a joint press conference or other public joint forum to do what Ukrainian President Poroshenko requested. President Trump should tell President Putin to stop his aggressive actions against Ukraine, allow Ukrainian ships full freedom of the seas, and release the Ukrainian hostages. Otherwise, at minimum, there will be further economic sanctions against Russia.