In an opinion piece published in daily Postimees, Kalev Stoicescu, research fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS), recalled a televised event where Russian President Vladimir Putin said that "Russia's border doesn't end anywhere." He made clear that this was a joke, but recent events in the Kerch Strait have once again demonstrated that in reality, he wasn't joking at all.
According to Stoicescu, it is crystal clear that the Kremlin isn't one bit satisfied with Ukraine's current political direction. "The amputation of Crimea from its neighbour's side and what is essentially the occupation of the Donbas has not led to the result that Russia wants, ie Kiev's return to Moscow's sphere of influence," he wrote. With presidential elections scheduled for next March, Putin is looking at the possibility of his options being curbed, should a pro-Western candidate not submissive to Russia be elected.
Russia was further incensed when the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople recognised the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate, and illegitimate "elections" organised by the Kremlin in breakaway regions of Eastern Ukraine earlier this month were not declared legitimate by anyone other than Russia. To top things off, Putin's own popularity has seen a significant drop. "As always, war should help Putin cope with these primary concerns — to mobilise the people and increase support for the tsar, punish and humiliate the enemy (Urkraine) and threaten and force the rest of the world to 'respect' Russia," Stoicescu said.
Russia, he found, is, like its leader, a bully and a fighter, and the attacking and taking over of Ukrainian naval ships and the injuring and arrest of Ukrainian sailors alongside the captured ships is pure, unjustifiable aggression. Of course, Russia is sharing its own version of the weekend's events in the Kerch Strait, according to which everything was a premeditated provocation on Ukraine's part, allowing Putin to fall back on his favourite "We didn't start it!" line. Which is why it is especially important now that Ukraine remain composed.
"The martial law imposed by the Verkhovna Rada cannot lead to increased armed activity in the Donbas ('separatists' will surely begin provoking) or on the Black Sea, which would give Russia its excuse for beginning a war for the establishment of a land corridor in the direction of Crimea," Stoicescu said, warning that Russia is prepared to play the same tricks it did in August 2008, when Georgia "started" a war against Russia. He also warned against extending martial law, which for now is set to expire in one month's time, which would impede on Ukraine's presidential elections.
Russia is trying to choke out Ukraine, Stoicescu said, noting that Eastern Ukraine's metal industry, the region's primary economic branch, is very vulnerable, as it is dependent on coal, which the Donbas has not received in some time, and can no longer be brought in via the Ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk along the Sea of Azov. "The Kremlin apparently hopes to create economic and political chaos within the region's 'land bridge' and turn the people there against the powers in Kiev," he observed.
In essence, Russia has thus annexed not just Crimea, but now also the Sea of Azov. While Ukrainian ships were previously already subject to undue lengthy inspections aimed at creating economic issues for its neighbour, the current situation constitutes a full-on naval blockade. While the Ukraine has to remain calm, Stoicescu found that this is the point where the EU, the US and their allies should step in and punish Russia for its actions, noting that the latter will not change its behaviour so long as the punishments involved are, while painful, still tolerable overall.
"The Western world is obliged to begin enacting increasingly less tolerable sanctions against Russia, such as not allowing Russian ships in Western ports until Russia has ended the blockade of the Sea of Azov and stopped bullying Ukraine on the Black Sea," he concluded.
Editor: Aili Vahtla