It's been nearly three weeks since Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels and their crews at the entrance to the Sea of Azov, known as the Kerch Strait. The western response to this brazen act of war has been notable for its absence—mild expressions of concern combined with a call to return the sailors and boats forthwith, but no real action to impose costs on Moscow.
The incident may seem minor, but the stakes are real. If this action goes unpunished, Russia could effectively control all shipping into and out of the Sea of Azov, destabilizing Kiev's economy, and paving the way for Russia to take more territory in eastern Ukraine to establish a land-bridge between Russia and Crimea, which President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed in 2014.
On November 25, three Ukrainian Navy vessels sought to traverse the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, an inner-water that borders on both Russian and Ukrainian territory. Under a 2003 agreement, Ukraine and Russia share the territorial waters of both the strait and the Sea of Azov and guarantee free access to each other. For months, Moscow has sought to interfere with Ukraine’s free access, harassing both civilian and military vessels traversing the Strait. A new bridge connecting Russia to Crimea across the Strait that was completed last year already interfered with free passage by Ukrainian vessels. The latest incident has made that all but impossible.
Russia’s actions, which included ramming the Ukrainian naval vessels and firing on the crew, are a clear violation of international law—both the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2003 bilateral agreement governing the specific waterways. It’s subsequent seizure of the vessels, the arrest of 24 sailors, and their imprisonment in Moscow has further escalated the situation.
Even so, the international response to these actions has been lacking. European countries and the United States expressed varying levels of concern, and President Donald Trump cancelled his bilateral meeting with President Putin at the G20 Summit. Leaders have raised the issue with Russian interlocutors, but there have been no new sanctions let alone any more forceful actions.
The absence of a strong western response is a matter of great concern. Russia’s actions were not a one-off event that can be easily ignored, but fit a longstanding pattern of trying to probe for weaknesses in order to establish a new set of facts on the ground. Indeed, a new report from the European Union's security commissioner alleges that the latest actions were a well-planned act, not a defensive reaction to Ukraine's sailing mission as Moscow has claimed. The report notes that the Kremlin launched a year-long disinformation campaign to soften public opinion ahead of its hostile takeover of the Kerch Strait, using fake news and social media to raise the specter of Western assault in the minds of Russian citizens, including false claims that Ukraine had infected the sea with cholera and that its secret services were trying to transport a nuclear bomb to Crimea.
If Moscow gets away with this latest outrage, it will establish new facts on the ground. It will effectively control access to the Sea of Azov, which is home to the major Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk, through which Ukraine imports coal and exports steel and food. What’s more, failure to respond will open the way to the next set of probing efforts by Russia—including possibly the use of its military forces, many of which are reportedly massing on Ukraine’s eastern border, to connect Russian territory physically to Ukraine.
From the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2014, Putin’s aims have been clear: to destabilize Ukraine, prevent its alignment with the west, and reestablish Moscow’s effective control over the country. Every step has been geared to these goals—and the incident in the Kerch Strait is only the latest in a long list of actions to that end.
This has been a test of wills, not only between Moscow and Kiev but between Putin and western leaders. So far, Putin is winning. The time has come to reverse the tide.
The United States and its NATO allies should significantly increase their naval presence in the Black Sea to demonstrate they are closely watching Russian actions and declare a major interest in the region. Frequent patrols in the northeastern waters, joint training and sailing with Ukrainian vessels, and enhanced overall presence in the region would send a clear signal of western interests and resolve. So would strengthening Ukrainian maritime capabilities by providing much-needed equipment, including better radar and surveillance capabilities, coastal defense missiles, and new patrol boats to help ensure continued Ukrainian access to its own territorial waters.
At the same time, there is a need to ramp up economic sanctions against Russia—to make clear that there are real and growing costs to its continued illegal behavior. Among the steps to consider is suspending (if not ending) work on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, connecting Russia to Germany and bypassing Ukraine. Every step needs to be taken to ensure Ukraine can continue to collect transit fees for Russian gas currently transiting through pipelines on its territory.
Every time Putin engages in a new outreach, western countries seem to be caught off guard. They shouldn’t be. Putin’s strategy and goals have been clear. What’s been lacking in western resolve to make sure he cannot succeed.
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David B. Larter and Matthew Bodner / Defense News
“Russia already has internationally recognized rights in the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov that China could only dream of in the South China Sea,” Larter and Bodner write. Thus, despite the November clash in the strip of water running between the Crimean Peninsula and the Russian mainland, the US Navy is unlikely to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the region like it does in the South China Sea. Russia is also keen to avoid open warfare, fearing international blowback, but Larter and Bodner contend that, “Wresting full control of the Sea of Azov would fall well in line with Russia’s revanchist arguments underpinning its 2014 annexation of Crimea.”
David E. Sanger and William J. Broad / The New York Times
As the United States and Russia continue to cast blame back and forth over the pending dissolution of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, Sanger and Broad argue that there’s a more pressing problem at hand: “…Washington seems uninterested in trying to renegotiate the treaty to embrace all the countries that now possess the weapons....” China, in particular, faces no limits on the production of a new class of conventional and nuclear weapons. Arms control experts are also worried that if the INF treaty unravels, the New Start Agreement, which is a much bigger deal, would be next.
Harriet Agnew and Ben Hall / The Financial Times
After more than three weeks of intense protests by the so-called gilets jaunes against President Emmanuel Macron’s fuel tax increase, the French government finally caved and cancelled the measure. However, “The small policy concession was rejected by many…as too little, too late.” France has a large anti-establishment electorate, and the challenge now for Macron, Agnew and Hall argue, is how to engage with leaderless protestors with diffuse demands while preventing further confrontations.
Katrin Bennhold / The New York Times
Angela Merkel’s legacy is already being challenged, notably around two key decisions: her 2015 open border policy that welcomed more than a million migrants into Germany and the economic austerity she imposed on debtor EU countries. Merkel has pledged to finish out her term, which ends in 2021, but the time in between is, “…likely to be less than a victory lap for a chancellor who has been the face of stability in Germany and Europe,” Bennhold writes.
Griff Witte / The Washington Post
“Countries that once represented the triumph of liberty and freedom are now using democratic structures as tools of oppression,” Witte writes. More specifically, autocracy is making a comeback in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and the Czech Republic, but in a sleeker, subtler and, ultimately, more sophisticated version that its authoritarian forebears, he argues. “There are no strutting soldiers or cults of personality…opponents and journalists speak openly and loudly…instead of economic isolation and scarcity, a gusher of foreign investment flows,” Witte writes. Instead, ruling politicians and parties have managed to consolidate power by co-opting supposedly independent institutions, ranging from courts and prosecutor’s offices to newspapers and television stations. “Elections still take place, but they are used as justification for the majority to impose its will rather than a chance for the minority to have its say,” Witte states.
Lawrence H. Summers / The Washington Post
Summers argues the United States can bluster, but it cannot, in an open world, suppress the Chinese economy. “Trying to do so risks strengthening the most anti-American elements in Beijing,” he writes. As evidenced by the agreement struck by Trump and Xi at the G20 in Argentina, China appears willing to work with the US on specific trade issues as long as the US accepts China’s right to economic prosperity, “…knowing that sheer weight of numbers will make it the … world’s largest economy before long.”
James Kynge / The Financial Times
Kynge poses the question: “Does the rise of China—which used authoritarianism as a spur to mobilise productive forces—presage a new illiberal world order?” He reviews three political books—The New Silk Roads, The Future is Asian, and Belt and Road—that bring different perspectives and, for the most part, reach different conclusions.
Ian Bond / Centre for European Reform
The EU does not need to compete financially with China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), but it should stop China from buying the support of EU member states, Bond argues. China has been increasingly using its soft power in European countries by lending money for infrastructure projects and infiltrating host universities through its Confucius Institutes, which teach Chinese language and culture in more than 130 locations in the EU. Bond says the EU cannot afford to have its unity in dealing with China undermined by Beijing’s financial leverage in individual member-states. “There must be more willingness to challenge European leaders who seem more interested in taking Chinese cash than defending European values,” Bond concludes.
Peter S. Goodman / The New York Times
Eric Reynolds is building a company across Rwanda called Inyenyeri, which aims to replace Africa’s overwhelming dependence on charcoal and firewood with clean-burning stoves powered by wood pellets, Goodman writes. According to the World Health Organization, close to 4 million people die prematurely each year from ailments linked to air pollution from cooking. Reynolds company, Goodman writes, “…presents a real-world test of an idea gaining traction among those focused on economic development—that profit-making businesses may be best positioned to deliver critically needed services to the world’s poorest communities.