Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a "frozen conflict," but Russia recently seized three Ukrainian naval vessels near the Kerch Strait to the Black Sea. In this week's Deep Dish podcast, US Navy Commander Tony Chavez joins Council President Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO, to discuss the geopolitical importance of this maritime dispute.
Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish On Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues.
I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're talking about the latest developments between Ukraine and Russia. Russia and Ukraine have been in conflict and a hot piece in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine ever since 2014, and they recently clashed at sea, leaving many wary about rising tensions between the two countries.
To join me in this discussion are US Commander Tony Chavez, who has been deployed to every US Navy fleet around the world, and most recently, served in the Mediterranean as the 6th Fleet Air Operations Director.
Welcome, Tony. It's great to have you here.
Tony Chavez: Thanks, Brian. Good to be here.
Brian Hanson: Also with us is Ivo Daalder, President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former US Ambassador to NATO.
Welcome back to Deep Dish, Ivo.
Ivo Daalder: Great to be back.
Brian Hanson: You know, the outline of what happened, as people are probably familiar with, is on November 25th, near the Kerch Strait, Russian warships fired on, rammed, and ultimately seized three Ukrainian vessels and 24 sailors that were on those boats and they continue to hold both the boats and the sailors.
Now, Tony, I want to start with you, and I want you to lay out just, in words, a map of the region so that people have a sense of the geography because it's really important.
For those of you who are listening that have access to an internet connection, you can go to the Deep Dish on Global Affairs Facebook site and we have a physical map you can look at there. Please don't if you're driving, but for those who can't take a look at that map, Tony, lay out what this region looks like. What are the important features of this geography?
Tony Chavez: Sure, Brian. Russia and Ukraine, what they do is they share, basically, a shared bay, which is the Sea of Azov and there is the Kerch Strait that separates the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.
So if you can imagine you being on a boat, in the Sea of Azov, in the bay, you would go through the strait and you would open up into the Black Sea there. And then further down, you have the Turkish Straits beyond the Black Sea that opens up to the Aegean Sea and onto the Mediterranean. Those are the three levels of seas that are there from going from Russia and south into the Mediterranean.
Brian Hanson: And why are these waterways important for each Russia and Ukraine?
Tony Chavez: All right. Russia sees these three bodies of water almost like a three-tiered defense there for them. If you could imagine the Sea of Azov, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea as a three-tier defense, Russia would like to move the opposition to the outer tier, the Mediterranean, which is probably really unlikely.
What they'd like to do is take control of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, which are the inner two tiers of that defense. If Russia considers the Mediterranean and the Middle East as backyard, the Black Sea is the front porch, and the Sea of Azov is a front door, so it really makes them nervous when the US and NATO is operating that close.
Brian Hanson: Ivo, I want to turn to you. Inside of that geography, there is also a context in which this conflict is taking place, which is the conflict between Russia and Ukraine that's been going on since 2014. What is Vladimir Putin trying to achieve by this latest provocation, this latest incident at sea?
Ivo Daalder: Well, let me put part of the geography back into here as well.
The Sea of Azov is in fact connected to both Ukraine and to Russia. They both have ports that are important in that sea, and the Strait of Kerch separates Ukraine from Russia, except that the Ukrainian part has been seized by Russia in 2014 because that's called Crimea. It's the place where the conflict between the two sides in 2014 started, when we had little green men appearing in Crimea and taking over control of this part of Ukrainian territory, and indeed, annexing it to Russia.
For Russia's view right now, the strait cuts through Russian territory, Crimea, which claims to be Russia, and Russian territory. There's also now a bridge that they have built between the two, which is the only direct link from Russian land to Crimea at the moment. That's an important geographical situation.
What has been happening since 2014 when the Russians annexed Crimea and started a major military operation by helping opposition forces and arming them, and indeed, directing them with their own capabilities to take major parts of Eastern Ukraine, is that the Russians are trying to destabilize Ukraine.
Ukraine, in 2013 and 2014, had a big internal debate about whether or not it should align more closely with the European Union, and the Russians wanted to prevent that from happening, and one way you prevent that from happening is to start a war. They did it with Georgia in 2008. They've done it in Transnistria back at the beginning of the Soviet Union collapsing in Russia, becoming independent. It's part and parcel of how they operate.
The destabilization of Eastern Ukraine, the seizure of Crimea, is part and parcel of an attempt to make sure that Ukraine stays within the Russian sphere of influence. This latest incident really is designed to push a little further. It was getting a little comfortable for the Ukrainians. There's a presidential election coming up in March of next year, and as Russia does, they probe and probe and they wait what the response is, and if the response is not big enough, they'll probe a little more. I think we're in the beginning of that stage.
Brian Hanson: Tony, you, as a sailor, understand freedom of navigation and all. Did the Ukrainian boats that were set on by the Russians, did they have the right to be in these waters doing what they were doing in these waters or did Russia have ... Was there some sort of provocation that created a justification for Russia to seize these boats?
Tony Chavez: They had the right to be there. No matter how you look at it, whether you do the 2003 agreement that was signed by Russia and Ukraine, that states that the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait are both internal waters for both those countries. In addition to that, it states in there that any ship that flies the flag of either Russia or Ukraine has the freedom of navigation through both the Kerch Strait and a Sea of Azov.
Brian Hanson: So they could go through here without any trouble because these are waters that are controlled by both Russia and Ukraine.
Tony Chavez: Absolutely, and even if you took a United Nation Convention On the Law of the Sea, even if you take Article 38, which allows you right of transit passage, Ukraine should have been able to go through there without any provocation because you can either view it as the two agreements that Russia and Ukraine signed, or you can view it as UNCLOS, which, if could imagine, there's high seas on either side of the Kerch Strait, and a state can go from a high seas area through a strait and to another high seas area without any issues.
Brian Hanson: So Ivo, in terms of the escalation of this conflict, for those folks who have had a chance to look at the map, what you can see is that if the Russians control this strait, they essentially cut off a whole part of Eastern Ukraine from the ability to have sea access there, including an important port. Why is that important?
Ivo Daalder: There's two things that are happening.
One is Russia is trying to make de jure what is already the case de facto; it's control of Crimea. And because it now thinks it owns both sides of the strait, it should be able to control the strait itself. There are reasons under international law. One, because seizure of Crimea is illegal. Two, as Tony said, under a naval and bilateral treaties and the UN Convention On the Law of the Sea, this is illegal as well.
But they're trying to erase history and reality, and part of the history and reality to trying to erase is more of Eastern Ukraine. There's a very important port, particularly for steel and other exports in Mariupol, which is in the Sea of Azov, and if they can control access by Ukrainian ships, or indeed any other ship, to that port, they control the ability of Ukraine to export and import through that port, which would make it much more difficult to export and import because you'd have to move stuff to the other side of Crimea in order to get directly into the Black Sea. So it's part of an economic, political, and potentially a military escalation.
Mariupol was very much in the eye of the Russians back in August of 2014 when there was a major escalation by the Russians, including with arms, columns of tanks that the Russians were flushing into Eastern Ukraine. There was a big fight at the time that stopped the advance, but it was clear that if this advance had not been stopped, they would've seized Mariupol because what do the Russians want? They want direct link between Russia and Crimea over land, not just a bridge that is now over the Kerch Strait, but direct land. They want control of that.
Brian Hanson: Tony, so this is an escalating naval situation. In military terms, can Ukraine challenge the Russian Navy? Is that a fair fight? Can they respond militarily in a way that can back the Russians off?
Tony Chavez: I think the short answer is no, and I'll explain a little more with that.
When Crimea was annexed, as previously mentioned by Ivo, the ships that were in port weren't able to escape or usurped by Russia, so it took most of the navy that Ukraine had. In addition to that, it probably cut its sailors in half, probably about, I think it's 6,500 right now that are serving. Prior to that, it was over 16,000. So right now, we're at 6,500 sailors.
We did provide a couple of a Coast Guard Cutters recently, but they're armed with probably 25 millimeter guns and 50 cow guns, not enough to defend against Russia. And regardless, even if they did have those ships that were there in port, which is two of the newest corvettes were kept by Russia after they usurped those naval vessels, there's no way they could defend against the naval forces of Russia or even the air coverage that Russia has in the area.
Brian Hanson: If Ukraine can't handle this situation on its own, then all the more important is what is the international response to this incident? Ivo, what have the major responses been to date?
Ivo Daalder: A lot of rhetoric. Even that, not very good rhetoric. A lot of countries have expressed that they're concerned. Some are deeply concerned, some are very concerned. Some are really seriously concerned.
Brian Hanson: Not things that Vladimir Putin is usually deterred by deep concern.
Ivo Daalder: Exactly. And the President of the United States, of course, canceled his one-on-one with Vladimir Putin in Argentina, the G20 Summit, citing the seizure of the ships, the three boats, and the 24 sailors – three of whom are wounded and all of them are in prison in Moscow, they've been pulled back to Moscow – as a reason.
But so far, I think the best you can say is we're starting a debate in Germany about Nord Stream II, which is a big gas pipeline that is circumventing Ukraine and Poland to ship gas directly from Russia directly through the Baltic Sea into Germany and then into Austria. That gas pipeline is designed to prevent Ukraine from getting transit fees for gas that is being pumped right now through the pipelines that run through Ukraine.
So there's now a debate about maybe that is not such a good idea to have this pipeline, That would actually be a very serious decision on the part of the Germans if they were to cut it off. There's been very little, frankly, I haven't seen any debate, certainly not an official levels, about any military action on the part of NATO or the United States, whether to put ships closer into the Black Sea. There is a NATO military SMG, the standard-
Tony Chavez: The [crosstalk 00:13:06], yeah, the standard-
Ivo Daalder: Right, yeah, the standard NATO Maritime Group is right now in the Black Sea. They could go closer to this part of where the incident took place. There's been no talk about sanctions. Should we have more sanctions? Should there be more pressure? What we have is very serious concerns on the part of our allies.
Frankly, I don't think that's enough because this is very much designed to see what the reaction was, and if the reaction is weak, we'll see more. That's Putin modus operandi. It's the way he deals with these things. He pushes, he pokes, he provokes, and sees what the reaction is, and then he moves forward.
Tony Chavez: Yeah, we're calling that the gray zone of operation where were they provoke just a bit, just enough to stay under conventional warfare where we won't react. They're measuring how much – every time they provoke us, they're going to see what our reaction is and then they'll either back up or they'll continue pushing there. Then they continue making those new norms, those new lines that keep moving forward.
Brian Hanson: So Tony, are there things that the US could do with its naval forces? You're in Chicago, so you're not privy to any of the planning of this.
Tony Chavez: Sure.
Brian Hanson: But you've seen situations like this before. Are there things that we could do with our ships that could send a strong signal?
Tony Chavez: Sure. I imagine that the planners there in 6th Fleet are debating how to do this or how to react. I know that US 6th Fleet doesn't have a continuous presence in the Black Sea, but since the annexation of Crimea, we have increased the presence there. We are in the Black Sea probably about 125 days out of the year throughout the year. These different vessels go out there. Prior to this escalation, we would just go out to the Black Sea and conduct exercises, but now we have increased it, not only to conduct the exercises out there, but also to provide, basically, a patrol of the Black Sea under the Atlantic Resolve, which is basically the dedication to NATO's combined efforts in the Black Sea.
So I believe that there will be an increase in vessels there. However, this will be under a multilateral operations and exercises.
Brian Hanson: And what does that mean? Why is that important?
Tony Chavez: Well, it's better to do things, practice them in a controlled environment prior to getting there if you're in the act of war, right? You want to get out there, make sure that interoperability is working well with other partners, and you all know what communications you're using and what tactics you're using. We share those with Romania and Bulgaria.
And recently, we were out there doing amphibious operations, anti-submarine warfare operations, anti-mine operations. All this goes to make sure that we're practicing it prior to escalation.
Brian Hanson: Tony, I've seen some people suggest that one possibility could be that the Ukrainians invite the US or NATO to do a port visit Mariupol, their port, which would mean you'd have to go through the Strait of Kerch into the Sea Azov. Is that something that's possible?
Tony Chavez: Well, we talked about it earlier. If you view it under UNCLOS, it's one high sea to another high sea, and technically it's legal, but because Ukraine and Russia have signed those agreements, it's probably illegal. Maybe not illegal, but it would be hurting Ukraine as a signatory there and they would give Russia that ability to poke more at Ukraine if we break those treaties or if Ukraine breaks those treaties.
Brian Hanson: So under the 2003 agreement-
Tony Chavez: That's correct.
Brian Hanson: If you want to stay with that agreement, not only do you Ukrainians, but also the Russians, would have to agree to the passage. Right?
Tony Chavez: That's correct. They both signed off that a third state coming into the Sea of Azov have to be agreed upon by both countries.
Ivo Daalder: No, no. Originally, I thought maybe this is a way to demonstrate that international waters are international waters, but if you have to violate another international agreement, that's probably not the best way in which to make the point that the Russians are violating international agreements.
Tony Chavez: Which takes us to the point of where we are now and how we get out of this. Is there a path forward to deescalate this conflict, particularly in a way that sends a strong message to Putin? As opposed to, "Oh, I got away with that," and Tony, as you were talking about, setting up that next line in the gray zone, advancing the gray zone. How should we think about this? What should be done in order to respond?
Ivo Daalder: So first, I think it's important to understand what is it that we're trying to achieve. Much of the rhetoric that we've seen so far, including by President Trump, has focused on November 25 and its aftermath. That is to say, the President, when he said, "I'm not going to have the meeting with Putin," he said, "until the sailors are freed and the boats are returned back to Ukraine." That is basically to the status quo ante of November 24th.
But if you look at this in a bigger strategic context, that this is yet another attempt by Putin to provoke and poke and see how far he can get away with it, getting back to the status quo ante may not be enough. The real message that needs to be sent is don't even try to cut off the Sea of Azov or Ukrainian vessels, indeed, to start to think about taking control of the Ukrainian part of the Sea of Azov.
So at the very least, I think you have to start putting pressure on the Russians. One way is this debate about Nord Stream that's taking place within Germany, but the other is this is a time when you increase sanctions on the Russians and say, "This kind of behavior is going to cost you," not that we want to get a return to the previous status quo ante. What we want is to understand that, "If you do this, you're going to suffer big pain."
Well, how do you do that? More sanctions, probably more self-defense capabilities for the Ukrainians, more training of the Ukrainian Navy, and more cooperation with the Ukrainians to make sure that they have the capacity for self-defense.
Brian Hanson: Tony, anything you would add to that formula?
Tony Chavez: Well, no, I agree with the sanctions. I think that that's going to be the driving force that helps us eliminate this issue, especially because it's gonna hurt Russia especially with a flailing economy that Russia has.
One of the things that I did want to add that just recently yesterday we conducted a Freedom of Navigation operations.
Brian Hanson: This is the US?
Tony Chavez: Yes, in Peter the Great Bay in the Pacific, in this Sea of Japan. I don't know if this is a tit for tat or I feel like maybe watering down Russia's capabilities of spreading their forces, but they claimed the entire bay there, which is very similar, other than it doesn't get completely closed as it does in the Sea of Azov. But we conducted a Freedom of Navigation operation not 24 hours ago against Russia in the Sea of Japan.
Brian Hanson: So that means we send our boats, our ships into their water-
Tony Chavez: That's correct, a destroyer-
Brian Hanson: Into areas that they would have concerned about, so avoiding some of the legal issues that we've been talking about in the Sea of Azov, but sending a message of our determination and resolve to maintain Freedom of Navigation in contested waters.
Tony Chavez: That is correct.
Ivo Daalder: Yeah. No, I think it's, you know, international waters are international waters and if you have a ship, you should be able to sail in it unless there's some agreement that prevents you from doing that.
The other thing that the Russians have done that people had hardly notice, they have now put a battery of S-400 air defense missiles in Crimea, which is not their territory. They don't own it, but they have put those forces there, which suggests that they now have the capacity to defend or try to defend the Strait of Kerch, not only with naval capability, but against Ukrainian aircraft by shooting them down, potentially, or at least threatening to shoot them down by deploying these very advanced missile defense systems in Crimea.
Brian Hanson: So as we close, you've both described the situation as testing and probing by Vladimir Putin. For our listeners who want to continue to understand how this plays out, what should they pay closest attention to as this situation continues? What are the keys to know how this is going and what it's bigger implications are going to be?
Tony Chavez: It's probably going to be the obvious in the Kerch Strait, if there's any conflicts there, but you can also see Russia trying to make moves to be a greater respected power, especially as it moves into the Mediterranean, grabbing a foothold in Syria, arguably mobilizing equipment and personnel into that area, having that anti-access area denial that you talked about, Ivo, as they've moved an S-300 down there.
So is it mobilizing equipment into the Mediterranean to have a bigger sphere of influence and have some geopolitical influence down to that area? I would look for Russia to move down, continue investing in Greece, in Africa, and in Israel, possibly even, to have access because right now, Russia, aside from the Port of Tartus, it has nowhere else their ships can fuel in the Mediterranean if they're going to deploy into that area.
Brian Hanson: So part of a bigger strategy of watching what Putin is doing, not only around Ukraine, but more broadly into the Mediterranean.
Tony Chavez: That's correct.
Brian Hanson: Yeah. Ivo?
Ivo Daalder: I think we're going to continue to see Putin do what he has been doing for the past 15 years, which is probe, establish new facts on the ground, get it accepted by whoever is involved, usually us, the United States and the west, and then probe again. That's part in the Mediterranean, what Tony was talking about, it's happening in other parts of the world in the Middle East. They are a big power, although an economically weak big power, and they want to establish new facts on the ground.
In Ukraine, I think and I've thought since 2014, that their real aim here is, first and foremost, to establish a land bridge between Russia and Crimea, not just a bridge that they have now created in the Strait of Kerch, but actually move control by non-Ukrainian forces, opposition, whatever, all the way through Mariupol. I think the fact on the ground they have just established now is Ukraine no longer has access to the Sea of Azov.
That's going to be the one to watch. Are the Ukrainians going to try to break it? Is there a way to see what is going to happen? But for now, they have said, "You can't come through here anymore because we control this part of the world." That part of the world is what I'd be looking at.
Brian Hanson: Ivo Daalder and Tony Chavez, thanks both for coming onto Deep Dish and really helping us get beyond what are day-to-day events and seeing the bigger context and the bigger implications. Thank both of you for being here.
Tony Chavez: Thanks, Brian.
Ivo Daalder: Great to be here.
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This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. Our audio engineer is Andy Czarnecki. I'm Brian Hanson and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.