Russia has attacked and seized three Ukrainian warships that were traveling from Odesa on the Black Sea to Mariupol in the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait. The incident took place near Crimea, which Russia forcefully annexed from Ukraine in 2014. While the Strait is considered the shared territorial waters of both nations, according to a 2003 treaty on the Azov-Kerch defined area of water, and Ukrainian officials have said their ships were operating in line with international law, Russia has blamed the incident on a Ukrainian conspiracy to provoke an international incident. Russia recently completed the Kerch Strait Bridge that connects the Russian Federal to the annexed Crimea. Russia appears to using a tanker to block the Strait, thus suggesting the incident may have been part of an effort to protect the bridge. An incident of this nature would normally be a bilateral issue, but the Ukraine Crisis, the fact that the incident revolves around freedom of navigation, and Russia’s status as a world power make the Kerch Strait Incident an international concern that could easily spiral out of control.
Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian ships, whether or not their transit through the Kerch Strait was actually provocative, serves as yet another example of Russia responding to an alleged aggression with a disproportionately heavy-handed response. It is a pattern that was observed in the preclude to its 2008 war on Georgia and throughout the Ukraine Crisis. At the very least, this is an example of Russia overreacting to a situation the government of Vladimir Putin perceives to be a threat to its interests. Recognizing the fact that the Ukraine Crisis remains unresolved, this incident could easily be a pretext for a much larger military campaign against Ukraine. After Russia stole Crimea from Ukraine, the Putin government engineered a prolonged pro-Russian insurgency in Eastern Ukraine. Having failed to predict the US and its NATO allies would sustain massive sanctions against Russia, along with a devastating collapse in energy prices, Russia turned to Syria in support of the then-faltering Assad regime, thus compelling the West to shift away from the Ukraine Crisis and focus on the Syrian Civil War. The Kerch Strait Incident could be the next move in Putin’s plans to reassert political control over Ukraine.
While the Kerch Strait Incident could prove to be an defining moment for all members of the UN Security Council and NATO, all eyes will be on the United States. European nations are most threatened by Russia’s domineering behavior due to their proximity to Russia, but it is the United States that will have to lead the global response to Russia’s continuing rogue state behavior in order to protect freedom of navigation throughout the world and to safeguard the world’s nations from arbitrary invasion. It will be a defining moment for current UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is taking point for the Trump Administration. For President Donald Trump, it will also be a defining moment. His response could even determine his legacy. So far, Trump’s response has been tepid, at best. One might even characterize it as an attempt to ignore the Russian hostilities. Like President Barack Obama, who initially shied away from confronting Russia, it will be Trump’s prolonged response that determines whether or not the Putin government is encouraged to engage in future hostilities or punished for bullying its neighbors.
Complicating the US and global response to the Kerch Strait Incident is Ukraine’s response. In the wake of the situation, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked lawmakers to institute marital law, which they obliged. It is a move that could mean the curtailing of civil liberties and democratic freedoms. With Ukrainian elections only months away and corruption running rampant in the former Soviet state, much like Russia, the potential power play feeds into Russian conspiracy theories, thus casting doubt on the true motivations of Proshensko and the credibility of Ukraine’s case against Russia. That said, there is a vast difference between propping up the Proshenko regime and defending international norms. There is a difference between securing corrupt governments and pushing back against governments that show a lack of respect for the sovereignty of other nations and democratic freedoms of a People. Whatever agenda Proshenko might be pursuing, the US and the rest of International Community need to send a clear message to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin must not be allowed to use Russian power to pursue his imperialist ambitions unopposed.
In 1981, Muammar Gaddafi attempted to claim the Gulf of Sidra as his own by drawing a “line of death” across the Mediterranean Sea. President Ronald Reagan ordered the US Navy to conduct a freedom of navigation patrol. The US ended up shooting down two of Gaddafi’s MiG-23s, but Reagan sent a powerful message to the world: the US would not allow any government to use intimidation to disrupt global travel and commerce. President Obama’s response to the Ukraine Crisis was nowhere near as dramatic or intimidating, but prolonged international sanctions showed Putin that there would be consequences for violating the borders of other nations and international laws. The consequences of a war with Russia are far greater than those of a war with Libya, yet that is precisely why the US needs to stand up to the Putin government. It is widely believed that the Putin government has damaging information on Donald Trump while the President faces the prospects of Congressional investigations following the 2018 Midterms. The President is weak against Russia. Recognizing Russian attempts to hack the US political system, it would seem Putin’s chess game is unfolding as he planned. It will be up to President Trump to decide whether or not he allows Putin to mute the US response.
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