The incident in the Kerch Strait: Russia’s provocation or Poroshenko’s strategic maneuver?

Analytics | | 23-01-2019, 14:40

As the result of the escalation in the Kerch Strait, which enables access into the Sea of Azov located in the south of Ukraine and partly controlled by pro-Moscow separatist forces, Russian navy troops fired on and captured three Ukrainian vessels. Moreover, three Ukrainian sailors were wounded during the incident. According to The Guardian, the Kremlin has increased its military contingent located along Ukraine-Russian borders and the amount of the tanks has been tripled after the incident (, November 28, 2018).

After the detention of Ukrainian navy vessels by Russia in the Kerch Strait, the tense relations observed between Kiev and Moscow escalated once again after the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia in 2014. An interview of Ukrainian president, Petra Poroshenko has proved once more the seriousness of the situation in Ukraine: “I don’t want anyone to think this is fun and games. Ukraine is under threat of full-scale war with Russia” (, November 28, 2018).

Kiev and Moscow were accusing each other in the escalation of the situation in the Kerch Strait. If Kiev was accusing Moscow of impeding Ukrainian vessel’s entry into the Sea of Azov, while Moscow was blaming Kiev in violating its territorial integrity. The escalation of the situation was taken by the UN Security Council as a real danger and was called an emergency meeting (, November 27, 2018).


Agreement between Russia and Ukraine

According to the agreement on demarcation of land and boundaries and navigation of naval ships in the Black Sea Fleet signed by the governments of countries in 1997, Russia and Ukraine came to the consensus on many points. However, there are still some important points that do not find their reflection in the agreement of 1997. For instance, there is still a disagreement on the definition of the maritime border in the Sea of Azov (, December 5, 2018).

Nevertheless, the agreement signed in 1997 did not become the last one. Consequently, between Moscow and Kiev has been signed numerous agreements on maritime status since then. However, the finalization of the Kerch bridge in May of the last year brought some challenges with itself such as navigation of naval vessels. Consequently, it is important to underline that all these disagreements brought to the incident at the Kerch Strait (, December 5, 2018).


Russia’s traditional provocation

It is informed that Russian navy had anchored the tanker under the new built Kerch bridge impeding the legal entrance of Ukrainian vessel between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, which caused the incident between the vessels of Russia and Ukraine. The international community denounces Russian action and defines it as a provocation led to the escalation of the situation in the Kerch Strait. However, since the Kerch Strait is considered by the Kremlin as its legal territory, the entrance of Ukrainian vessels is perceived by Moscow as illegal (, November 27, 2018).

As it is very well known, Sevastopol plays an enormous role in the Black Sea Fleet. The presence of NATO vessels is a crucial point making the Crimea Peninsula vital for Russia. Therefore, it is believed that the Kremlin wanted to test the reaction of NATO for the second time after the annexation of the Crimea Peninsula. After finishing off the Kerch bridge, the Kremlin decided to test Ukraine’s and its western allies’ “watchfulness”.

In general, the incident in the Kerch Strait is a part of total aggression of the Kremlin against Ukraine and should be seen as a next provocation after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the war in Donbass and Luhansk. Meanwhile, it is assessed that since the beginning of the war in Donbass was killed over 10,000 people despite signed many agreements on the ceasefire in the region (, November 26, 2018).

Some pro-Russian experts claim that Russian is not interested in the escalation of the situation in Ukraine in contrast to the so-called “5 Days of War” between Russia and Georgia in 2008. However, the reality is far away from Russian peaceful intention in the region. A permanent escalation of political situation impedes Ukrainian government to establish peace in the country, while Moscow profits from this chaos in Ukraine significantly for dictating of its policy and polarization of Ukrainian society.

Ukraine has crucial importance for Russia on the way of the realization of its imperialistic ambitions in the Post-Soviet Region and Eastern Europe. Consequently, it would not be wrong to classify Ukraine as a strategically most important state in the rivalry between NATO and Russia. Hence, taking into account its enormous meaning for Moscow, Russia is ready to pay a high price for keeping this country in its sphere of influence, through systematic destabilization of this country in particular (, November 27, 2018).


Martial law in some regions of Ukraine. Petro Poroshenko’s strategic maneuver?

Taking into account the seriousness of the situation, the Ukrainian government has imposed the martial law for the first time since the escalation of the relations between two states. Moreover, it was imposed a high alert in Ukrainian army and organized a protest action in front of Russian Embassy in Ukraine, while according to Moscow, Russia protected only its legal rights (, November 27, 2018).

Interestingly, three days before the incident in the Kerch Strait, the Ukrainian Defense Minister mentioned that the conflict in the East of Ukraine was entering in its “active phase” and can be accompanied by Russian open aggression against Ukraine and its sovereignty (, November 26, 2018).

Hence, along with its economic difficulties as a permanent rising of its international debts, unsustainable economy, the government of Ukraine has to struggle with political challenges intentionally created by Moscow in the east of the country. Ukraine will have new presidential elections in March 2019. However, there is no stability in country and Ukraine has been suffering from the unstable political situation since 2014. Meanwhile, there is no candidate having more than 30% of votes, according to polls suggestions.

Some experts suggest that Poroshenko may have had more political reasons in the escalation of bilateral relations with Russia. First, he may have been interested in having close support from the West through demonstrating to Ukrainians’ allies an escalation of the situation. Secondly, getting the support of Ukrainian voters before the presidential elections in March of this year.

There is a suggestion that Petro Poroshenko has imposed the martial law in Ukraine, because he might have used an unstable security situation in country as a political card to postpone very tough elections for him, which are believed that can end with its loss to the main opponent of him, Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister.

The martial law, which covered 10 regions of Ukraine, along with Black Sea Region, the borders with Russia, Belarus and Moldova was lifted by Petro Poroshenko on December 26. He stressed earlier in December that it is not expected to extend the time of martial law in Ukraine, but in the case of attack by Russian troops (, December 26, 2018).


Sum up

The incident in the Kerch Strait should be assessed as an increase of Russia’s aggression towards the states of the former Soviet Union. Since the illegal annexed Crimean Peninsula is perceived by Russia as a part of its legal territory, the Ukrainian gunboats, which was accompanied by tugboat was blocked by Russian vessels while they were trying to enter into the Azov Sea. Meanwhile, the Sea is perceived as internal waters of Russia and Ukraine as well, according to the agreement signed between governments of these states in 2003 (, November 27, 2018).

The incident in the Kerch Strait is not an ordinary escalation, which could lead to the deterioration of relations between two states. It is more than a simple diplomatic disagreement. An annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia, which is recognized by the world community as an integral part of Ukraine, the support of separatist movement in the East of Ukraine, territorial claims by the Kremlin against Ukrainian state, an interference into the internal affairs of Ukraine makes this incident very dangerous not only for these two countries, but also for all states of the former Post- Soviet Region, which is a region suffering from different conflicts and separatist movements after the collapse of the USSR.



About the author:

Yunis Gurbanov is a PhD student and tutor in the Chair for International Relations and Foreign Policy of the Research Institute for Political Science and European Questions at the University of Cologne. He is currently conducting his research at Davis Center of Harvard University. Some of his research interests and expertise areas are the geopolitics of Central Asia and South Caucasus; Energy Policy in the Caspian Region; Russian Foreign Policy towards Central Asian and South Caucasian States.