“WE NEED TO fucking fuck them up, fuck…it seems like the president is controlling all this shit,” a Russian commander tells the captain whose ship rammed a Ukrainian military tug-boat in the Kerch Strait while another used live ammunition against a Ukrainian warship. The intercepted conversation, published on YouTube, provides a flavour of what happened between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea on November 25th. A video shot aboard one of the Russian ships provides the images.
It looked more like piracy than self-defence. The Russian coastguards, part of the FSB, or security service, seized the Ukrainian ships and captured 23 sailors, wounding six of them. They took them to Crimea, a chunk of Ukraine that Russia grabbed four years ago. In 2014 Russia acted deniably, sending “little green men” in unmarked fatigues to Crimea. This time its forces acted openly, under the Russian flag.
The crisis did not emerge from out of the blue. It is the culmination of six months of growing Russian pressure on Ukraine. Having in 2004 annexed Crimea, Russia is now restricting access from Ukraine’s eastern ports to the Black Sea, and thence to the Mediterranean and the world.
To get to the Black Sea, ships must pass through the Kerch Strait (see map). On May 16th Russia opened a bridge across the strait that is too low for large ships. It also moved five naval vessels from the Caspian to the Sea of Azov. Russia’s coastguard has since then detained scores of Ukrainian and foreign merchant ships—more than 140 between May and August—for hours and even days at a time, in what amounts to an undeclared blockade.
An agreement between Russia and Ukraine in 2003, before Ukraine tried to break away from Russia’s sphere of influence, established joint control of the Sea of Azov. Now both sides of the strait that controls access to it are held by Russia. Immediately after the latest clash, Russia briefly parked a tanker across the waterway, to remind Ukrainians what Vladimir Putin’s promises are worth. Ukrainians fear that his next move will be to take control of the whole of the Sea of Azov—a huge strategic prize—and further endanger the port of Mariupol, Ukraine’s third largest.
The detentions, delays and uncertainty have already strangled eastern Ukrainian ports like Mariupol and Berdyansk. The new bridge has bottled up 144 Ukrainian ships that are too tall to slip under its 33-metre structure. Shipping in and out of Mariupol has fallen by a quarter.
Ukraine cannot fight back. It lost up to 80% of its navy when Crimea was annexed, since most of its ships were moored there and the Russians pinched them. Now, the most formidable vessel owned by Mariupol’s coastguard is an old fishing boat confiscated from Turkish poachers.
Sailing small military vessels from Odessa through the Kerch Strait last week was a “provocation” staged by Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, said the Kremlin, adding that he wanted to create a crisis and have an excuse to delay presidential elections due next year. Like all shrewd propaganda, it contained an element of truth. Mr Poroshenko, who is badly trailing his rivals in opinion polls, probably did want to rally popular support around the flag and buy himself more time. When Russia escalated the situation, he called for martial law in Ukraine—a move his critics decried as a political stunt.
The clash may have helped Mr Putin, too. The Russian strongman’s poll ratings have fallen to levels not seen since before he annexed Crimea. His mouthpieces in the Russian media now have useful material to decry the perfidious Ukrainians and praise Russia’s great protector. The timing of the clash—near the anniversary of the Maidan “revolution of dignity” that overthrew the Moscow-backed government of Viktor Yanukovich in Ukraine in 2014—provided a perfect peg for reheating conspiracy theories about the West trying to meddle in Russia’s back yard.
As Mr Poroshenko gave a rousing speech in the Rada (parliament) on November 26th, demanding the introduction of martial law, many deputies asked: “Why now?” Ukraine did not introduce martial law when Russian forces seized Crimea. Nor when they surrounded and killed its soldiers trying to recapture the Donbas (a part of eastern Ukraine seized by Russian-backed separatists in 2014). Nor when a Russian-supplied missile shot down a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine. The question was rhetorical. The two months of martial law that the president requested probably would have forced a delay to the presidential election, due at the end of March, and allowed Mr Poroshenko to associate himself with the armed forces, one of the few institutions in Ukraine that people respect. Perhaps for this reason, parliament, in an unusual display of muscle, gave him much less than he wanted. Martial law has been declared, but only for one month and only in areas bordering Russia.
Mr Putin may not get all he wants, either. The annexation of Crimea temporarily pushed up his approval ratings to nearly 90%. This time, however, his adventurism could backfire. Denis Volkov, a sociologist with the independent Levada Centre, wrote recently: “They may still consider Russia’s renewed greatness on the international stage to be Putin’s main accomplishment, but the public is growing disillusioned with Russia’s isolation, its unresolved conflict with the West, and the fact that the country is constantly ‘helping others’ at the expense of its own citizens.”
The Western response has so far been mixed. American officials condemned Russia’s aggressive actions. However, Donald Trump, who once said that the annexation of Crimea would not have happened on his watch, said nothing for 24 hours. When he finally spoke, he did not mention Russia by name, and said merely that he did not like the situation “either way”.
Germany’s reaction was also muted. Angela Merkel, the chancellor, who has been the strongest European voice against the Kremlin, had a telephone conversation with Mr Putin but did not condemn Russia’s actions publicly. Mrs Merkel’s critics say her hand is weakened by Germany’s interest in the planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that passes through it. Others hint that she is too busy worrying about her party’s leadership election to pay attention to Russia (see article). Mrs Merkel may feel that quiet diplomacy works better than public denunciations. Alas, there is little sign that either approach is working.