By MARK MACKINNON
Tuesday, November 27, 2018
The long-running but undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine has flared up, this time over the Kerch Strait, a narrow but strategic waterway at the tip of Crimea. Dangerously, the sudden escalation - which saw shots fired on Sunday as the Russian navy boarded and seized three Ukrainian vessels - appears to be driven as much by domestic politics as military planning.
The conflict took on a new and unpredictable hue Monday as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared martial law in parts of his country, claiming that Ukraine's intelligence services had warned him Russia was planning a land invasion. Ukraine's army was placed on full combat alert. Meanwhile, the Kremlin blamed Mr. Poroshenko's government for provoking the crisis by sending military vessels - a tugboat and two small artillery ships - through the disputed Kerch Strait, over which Russia claims sovereignty. Moscow refused Monday to return the seized Ukrainian ships, ignoring strongly worded condemnations from Canada, the United States, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance.
Russia said it is holding 24 Ukrainian sailors, three of whom were injured in Sunday's clash, which included a Russian coastguard vessel ramming the Ukrainian tugboat. Russia's Tass news service reported that the sailors had been arrested for "border violations."
The sudden spike in tensions reheated a conflict that has been frozen for most of the past four years, since the events of 2014, which included a pro-Western revolution in Kiev, Russia's seizure and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the outbreak of a Russian-sponsored separatist uprising in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
But while people are regularly killed and wounded in the almost daily fighting in Donbass, the front line rarely changes.
The Kerch Strait has long loomed large as a potential flashpoint. Any ships coming or going from the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk must pass through the waterway, which is just 3.1 kilometres wide at its narrowest point. Both sides of the strait have been under Russian control since 2014.
Ukraine says the three naval vessels were on a routine trip between the Black Sea port of Odessa and Berdyansk in the Azov Sea, and that the ships radioed ahead to the Russian side before attempting to transit the Kerch Strait, which was declared a shared waterway under a 2003 treaty. Russia says the ships never asked for, or received, permission to sail through the strait, and continued their journey despite warning shots and demands to turn back.
Videos of the incident depicted Russian sailors cheering as they rammed the Ukrainian tugboat. Other footage showed a pair of Russian fighter jets zooming alongside a newly built bridge that connects Crimea to the Russian mainland over the Kerch Strait.
Neither side seems interested in backing down: The likely reasons are contained in grim polling figures facing both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr.
A mounting economic crisis in Russia - and particularly his government's decision to raise the pension age earlier this year - has seen Mr. Putin's normally skyhigh approval ratings fall hard in recent months.
A recent survey by the independent Levada Centre found that a record-high 61 per cent of Russians said they considered Mr. Putin "fully" responsible for the country's problems, while another 22 per cent said they considered him "somewhat" to blame.
Most concerning for Mr. Putin - who won a fourth presidential term in March with 77 per cent of the vote - only 40 per cent of poll respondents said they'd vote for him if there was an election today.
Russia's harsh response to the appearance of Ukrainian ships near the Kerch Strait may be an attempt to reverse that trend.
Whipping up patriotism, especially via the confrontation with Ukraine, has always given the Kremlin boss a popularity boost in the past.
In a statement on Monday, Russia's Foreign Ministry accused Ukraine of intentionally creating the Kerch crisis. "Provoking conflict with Russia, is fraught with serious consequences," it warned.
Mr. Poroshenko has also been accused of looking at the polls as he manoeuvres in response.
Monday's decision to declare 30 days of martial law - with the possibility of extending it - calls into question whether a March 31 presidential election can be held fairly and on time.
Three former Ukrainian presidents - Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko - signed a joint letter on Monday calling the declaration of martial law a "threat to democracy."
Until this week's crisis, Mr. Poroshenko looked on track to lose the March vote. Two recent opinion polls showed him with about 10-per-cent support among decided voters, trailing former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was leading with just more than 20-per-cent support.
Mr. Poroshenko used a televised address on Monday to deny that politics played any part in his decision to declare martial law, calling such talk "dirty speculation."
Martial law gives Mr. Poroshenko the power to restrict public demonstrations, censor the media and potentially to delay the election. The measures will apply in all regions of the country that share a border with Russia, as well as those with coastlines on the Black or Azov Seas.
Mr. Poroshenko used his televised address to argue the emergency measures were necessary.
"I have a document of intelligence in my hands. ... Here on several pages is a detailed description of all the forces of the enemy located at a distance of literally several dozens of kilometers from our border. Ready at any moment for an immediate invasion of Ukraine," he said.
He added that martial law would, "in the event of an invasion, allow us to respond quickly, to mobilize all resources as quickly as possible."
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland used her Twitter account on Sunday - just hours after the incident in the Kerch Strait - to make it clear that Canada would back Ukraine in the crisis.
"Canada strongly condemns Russia's actions against Ukraine in the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait," she said in a follow-up statement on Monday. "We call on Russia to immediately de-escalate, release the captured crew and vessels and not impede passage through the Kerch Strait."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that Russia would face "consequences" if the crisis continued to escalate. He didn't specify what those might be, but highlighted how NATO had built up its forces in Eastern Europe after the events of 2014.
U.S. President Donald Trump, in brief remarks to reporters on the White House lawn, said "I do not like what's happening" between Russia and Ukraine, adding that he was working with "the Europeans" on a solution.
"Hopefully it'll get straightened out," he said.
MPs react as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko delivers a speech from parliament in Kiev on Monday. Mr. Poroshenko has declared martial law in some parts of the country.
GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES