The sudden rise in tension between Russia and the Ukraine comes at a time where world leaders are attending to internal challenges.
That’s after the Ukraine declared martial law in the East of the country following an incident that saw three Ukrainian sailors wounded when Russia opened fire on two artillery boats and a tug in the narrow waterway between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea on Sunday 25th November.
Ukraine said its vessels were heading to the Sea of Azov which is allowed in terms of a 2003 treaty, but Russia responded by claiming they had failed to obtain permission to pass through the Kerch Strait which separates Crimea from Russia to the East.
The narrow Kerch Strait is the only passage between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and was only recently spanned by a 19-kilometer bridge that Moscow completed in 2018. The Ukraine has ports in the Sea of Azov, as well as the Black Sea.
While both Russia and Ukraine have freedom of navigation in the Kerch Strait under a 2003 treaty, there are detailed technical rules on how vessels should pass through the narrow, complex waterway. Because all traffic in the area is controlled by the Crimean sea port of Kerch, every ship should contact the facility, report her route and destination, and receive permission to sail through the Strait. The Russians say this did not happen on Sunday.
The three Ukrainian vessels – the ‘Berdiansk’, the ‘Nikopol’ and the ‘Yany Kapu’ had been spotted to the South West in the Black Sea earlier in the day and the Russians say after the three approached the Straits, they ignored "legal demands to stop" and continued performing what Moscow says were "dangerous manoeuvres”.
Eventually Russian warships opened fire to force them to stop the the Russian intelligence agency, the FSB said the ships were seized and towed to the nearby Crimean port of Kerch.
But the incident comes as European and American leadership are caught up in internal threats.
International Attention Elsewhere
In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May is trying to convince her parliament to vote in favour of the latest Brexit agreement reached with the EU, a vote which is set for early December. The Ukrainian/Russian spat is not on her main agenda this week.
France’s president Emmanuel Macron is dealing with a surge of violence linked to increased taxes on fuel, while President Angela Merkel of Germany is facing a leadership challenge over her immigration policies.
Merkel said in October 2018 she will not seek a fifth term as chancellor, winding down her leadership. That’s in the wake of a regional election in the state of Hesse which saw voters flee to both the left and right of her centre right CDU party. Her party lost more than 11 percentage points since the last election in 2013, and was the worst result for the party since 1962.
American President Donald Trump has disappeared from Washington in order to take a lengthy holiday in Florida. He is more interested in the Immigrant caravan of central Americans on his doorstep than central European incidents and has not commented yet on the Ukrainian/Russian naval confrontation. An ongoing investigation into his alleged collusion with Russians before the American election, the Mueller Inquiry, has also led to confused signals from Washington over its relationship with Moscow.
NATO called an emergency session on Monday 26th November then urged both parties to show restraint. Spokesperson Oana Lungescu said the organisation was “closely monitoring developments in the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait,”
“NATO fully supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity, including its navigation rights in its territorial waters,” NATO said after the meeting.
Ukrainians go to the polls in an election in March 2019, and some there say Ukrainian president PetroPoroshenko’s move is a blatant attempt to raise temperatures so that he can act against the opposition.
Poroshenko defended the call for martial law saying it "in no way means that Ukraine will carry out any offensive actions".
"I want to emphasise separately that we have all irrefutable evidence that this aggression, this attack on the Ukrainian Navy's warships was not a mistake, not an accident, but a deliberate action," he added.
Ukraine also claims six of its 23 seamen on board the three vessels were wounded while Russia said it had treated three sailors for non-life threatening injuries.
After the incident, Russia closed the Straits of Kerch using a tanker under the large bridge built to carry road traffic between the Russian mainland and the Crimean peninsular.
It was reopened on Monday 26 November.
Russia continues to hold the vessels and the Ukrainian sailors while international mediators appear to be trying to intervene.
Russia and the Ukraine are fighting a low intensity war which has seen Ukrainian cities in the East of the country overrun by separatists backed by Moscow.
Russia regards the Ukraine as historically part of the Federation, with millions of its soldiers dying fighting to chase the Third Reich out of Soviet Union between 1941-1945. The Ukraine has also moved closer to the West in recent years which has worried Russian strategists who believe that NATO could becoming embroiled in the Eastern Ukrainian war.
The real fighting in the modern era began in 2014 when Russian backed separatists invaded Ukrainian territory after the fall of then president Viktor Yanukovish. After the larger cities fell to the separatists, they took control of infrastructure with Moscow’s backing, then turned their attention to the Crimea.
Russia backed a referendum where citizens voted overwhelmingly to join the Russian Federation. By April 2014 Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian soldiers fought in the Donbass area and Moscow sent military support vehicles into the East of the Ukraine. They followed this up in August in the area around Donetsk and the local army was easily overrun.
Probably the most shocking incident in the conflict was the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 on July 17 2014 while en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing 283 passengers and 15 crew on board. The Netherlands and Australia held Moscow accountable for the deaths of their citizens, after an extensive investigation showed that the missile which shot down the aircraft was of Russian origin.
The Buk surface-to-air system had been seen crossing the border by Reuters and other news agencies, and videos posted on various sites, and the Dutch probe found evidence pointing to arrival of the Buk system. They say the Buk that was used originated from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Federation and had been transported from Russia on the day of the attack. The empty launcher was returned to Russia after the airliner was hit in what appeared to be a botched attempt to shoot down military transport aircraft nearby.
A clumsy series of false reports then were distributed by Moscow alleging that the aircraft had been shot down by a Ukrainian jet. But missile parts recovered from the crash site have been clearly identified as being from a Buk missile.
Flight 17 was operated with a Boeing 777-2H6ER and it first flew on 17 July 1997, exactly 17 years before it was shot down
Moscow escalated the incursions in November 2014 in spite of denying its involvement, with independent media reports and journalists watching as convoys of tanks and heavy weapons made their way over the border between Russia and Ukraine.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe or OSCE also reported movements of heavy vehicles and troops moving from the east into the Ukraine. Russian soldiers began to die and investigative reporters inside the Federation interviewed the families of the dead, some who were bitter that their sons appeared to perished in anonymity.
International sanctions were then imposed on Russia, and organisations including Amnesty International reported human rights workers were coming under attack in the Federation over the Ukrainian conflict.
Eventually in late 2015 Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted that what he called “intelligence operatives” were inside the Ukraine, but claimed these were not proper soldiers.
Russia and the Crimea - a long association
Russia has always claimed the Crimea, and part of the Ukraine, arguing its territory was usurped by various wars. In 1783 Catherine the Great, the Tsarina, had annexed the peninsular from the Ottoman Empire. This gave Russia a great deal of power both over the Black Sea, and more importantly, the Mediterranean.
Russia signed the Treaty of Paris in 1856 after it was defeated in the Crimean War by Britain and its allies, and then dismantled its important naval base at Sevastopol.
They wanted to drive Russia out of the Black Sea, and this area has been sensitive for the Russian Military ever since.
By 1870 Russia had already rebuilt its naval base, and it remained crucial to military strategy through to WW II. Germany bombed Sevastopol into ruins, but after the war Joseph Stalin ordered the naval city rebuilt in a neoclassical style. It featured heavily in Soviet Propaganda campaigns as an example of the tenacity and spirit of Russia’s defence against the Third Reich.
When the Ukraine parliament adopted the Act of Declaration of Independence on 24 August 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed. The Act established Ukraine as an independent Russia was allowed to keep its navy in Sevastopol under a lease agreement that will only expire in 2042.
While a large number of Russians do live in the Crimea, it was the Crimean Tartars who suffered most after the peninsular referendum led to it rejoining the Russian Federation.
The Turkic speakers had lived in the Crimea for close to a thousand years, and Stalin had first deported a quarter of a million to Siberia in 1944, after he believed they would support the German invasion of Russia.
He believed the ethnic muslims were traitors, but after Stalin died, Nikita Krushchev gave the Crimea to the Ukraine in what he called a noble act. Tartars then began returning to their home state.
The second phase of the Tartar oppression began in 2014, however. Many had returned to the Crimea from Siberia and Asia, only to find themselves once again the subject of an increasingly aggressive Russian presence which led to many leaving once more.
The symbolic value of the Crimea lives large in the Russian mind, and the recent naval attack on three Ukrainian vessels must be seen in the context of the broad reach of history in the region.
That is something that European leaders have publicly stated is a threat to the region, with the Ukraine and Crimea now earmarked by Moscow for waves of immigration by Russian speakers and a cynical attempt at social engineering.
While all of this is taking place, America has a president who barely understands local geography, let alone the swathe of history and analysts are saying that is precisely why Vladimir Putin has decided to increase the pressure on Ukraine at this point.
It also comes as the Mueller Investigation reaches a critical point as former aides to President Trump have agreed to reveal more about his financial and other matters before the 2016 elections.