Russian ships blocked three Ukrainian Navy vessels from passing from the Black Sea into the Azov Sea via the Kerch Strait on 25 November. Russian forces then fired at and seized the Ukrainian ships, wounding at least three crew members. Russia’s Federal Security Service, which oversees the country’s border guard, said its forces fired at the ships in warning after they had illegally entered Russian territorial waters. The incident prompted hundreds of protesters to gather in front of the Russian Embassy in Kyiv on the night of 25 November, where they also threw smoke bombs and burned tyres. In response to Moscow’s actions, President Poroshenko said in a televised address on 26 November that he had signed a decree imposing martial law on Ukraine for 30 days – which will end on 28 December – though this was less than the 60-day period he initially proposed. MPs are meanwhile debating the terms of the decree, with a final vote set to take place in Parliament later on 26 November.
Russia has increasingly deployed military vessels to the Azov and halted a number of international cargo ships from leaving or reaching Mariupol port this year. Indeed, Ukrainian authorities said in August that Russia had briefly held over 150 vessels since April. We noted in our 24 August Report that Russian militarisation of the Azov would increase the risk of clashes between Russian and Ukrainian naval forces, and the latest incident reflects the escalating tensions in the area. Moscow intends its actions to cause financial damage to Mariupol and further strain the economy in the South-East. It hopes that this will demonstrate to Kyiv the cost of refusing to make major concessions to the Russia-backed separatists in the East, namely granting substantial autonomy to the Donbas. The decision to fire weapons may have also been influenced by recent US and EU pledges of support for Kyiv in the Azov, which Moscow likely feared would embolden the Ukrainian Navy to act more assertively against Russian ships that threaten its vessels. The Kremlin wants to establish uncontested control over the Kerch Strait, and so likely acted to deter Ukraine.
For his part, Poroshenko is seeking to exploit the latest incident with Moscow by acting forcefully in the hope of being associated with intense nationalist sentiment and thus boosting his popularity ahead of the March presidential election. However, criticism that he might seek to use the decree to delay the vote will have prompted him to reduce the proposed period of martial law to 30 days, so as to prevent a backlash. The President could later seek to extend the 30-day period if he judges the public is sufficiently concerned by the Russian military threat to be willing to overlook a postponement to the election, but this is currently unlikely given widespread scepticism of his motivations. Poroshenko could also use the decree to regulate the media and prevent anti-government demonstrations over the coming month, judging such actions useful to his candidacy in light of his unpopularity over his perceived failure to raise living standards or tackle high-level graft. Any extension of martial law is also likely to cause some operational difficulties for businesses, including restrictions on the movement of goods.
The naval clashes will meanwhile fuel nationalist protests in the coming days in Ukraine’s major cities targeting Russia-linked businesses and institutions. Clashes between the Army and Russian-backed separatists in the East are also likely to increase in the next few weeks, with heightened political tensions encouraging the rebels and government forces to violate ceasefire agreements. That said, Kyiv will want to avoid a major conflict with Moscow given that it would almost certainly face heavy territorial and personnel losses. The Kremlin – which is already looking to limit the cost of its engagement in eastern Ukraine – likely calculates that a full-blown military confrontation would further reduce the prospect of sanctions relief in the coming year. Indeed, both EU and US sanctions continue to place a significant financial strain on the Russian economy and have necessitated a range of highly unpopular austerity measures. These have in turn contributed to a significant fall in President Putin’s approval rating and provoked protests throughout Russia. There is consequently unlikely to be a significant military escalation as a result of the latest incident, meaning there will be no change to the line of control in the Donbas.
Despite the probable lack of a major escalation, the EU will likely impose some sanctions on Russian ports on the Azov, such as Rostov-on-Don, Taganrog and Yeysk. Indeed, the bloc had already confirmed on 19 November that it was considering taking appropriate targeted measures in response to Russian naval actions in the area. The latest provocations will strengthen the EU’s case for such restrictions, making it harder for states such as Italy and Hungary – which have called for a lifting of existing sanctions on Russia – to justify vetoing any new measures.
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