LONDON - Russia’s attack on Ukrainian military vessels in the Black Sea marks the first time the Kremlin has staged open aggression against Ukraine since President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea four years ago, and launched a destabilization campaign in the Donbas region.
In the past, the Kremlin has used so-called “little green men” — Russian soldiers without an insignia — to stage provocations or battle Ukrainian forces, denying they are directed by Moscow.
Sunday marked a new departure, however, with the hybrid war being stepped up, a development that risks igniting a broader conflict and spiraling out of control.
Putin power play
So why did the Russian leader decide now to stage such overt aggression — especially at a time when the Russian economy is struggling and could well do without any escalation of sanctions by Western nations? Putin's move comes just days before he's due to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump during the G20 summit in Argentina to discuss Syria and the recent U.S. decision to withdraw from a nuclear weapons treaty.
Some Western officials and analysts point to President Putin's slumping popularity at home, the consequence of unpopular pension reforms, to explain the attack in the Kerch Strait, which links the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, and is officially a waterway shared by Russia and Ukraine. They say it is calculated to boost Putin's approval ratings that are now at a five-year low.
On Twitter, Alexei Navalny, the prominent Putin critic, said the decision to ram, fire on and seize two gunboats and a tugboat is straight out of the Russian leader's traditional playbook in which he uses foreign adventures to divert domestic attention and encourage a siege mentality, whereby Russians feel Western nations are ganging up on them.
“We can expect 30 talk shows a day over the next month with discussions of aggressive warmongers from Kyiv,” he tweeted.
Captured sailors on display
Russia has moved fast to deepen the crisis, say analysts. A court in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, has ordered one of the 24 Ukrainian sailors detained by Russia to be held for two months and Russian media are reporting the man faces a charge of illegally crossing Russian borders, which carries a sentence of up to six years in prison. The other sailors are likely to face similar court action.
And the Kremlin moved quickly to blast the Ukrainians for what it paints as aggression against Russia, with state television Tuesday broadcasting interrogations of three of the captured sailors.
"I recognize that the actions of the ships with military hardware of Ukraine's navy had a provocative character," one of the sailors, identified as Vladimir Lisov, said in one of the interrogations, which Kyiv claims are being conducted under duress. "I was carrying out an order," Lisov added.
The presence of Ukrainian counterintelligence officers on board the vessels also is being highlighted by the Kremlin and on state media as evidence of Kyiv's dark intent. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov labeled the whole incident “a dangerous provocation” by the government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Russian officials accuse Poroshenko of trying to manufacture a crisis to boost his desperately low poll ratings ahead of next year's presidential elections, which he appears to be in danger of losing.
The exchange of accusations is par for the course in the long-running conflict between Moscow and Kyiv since the Euro-Maidan uprising led to the 2014 ouster of Ukraine's pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Certainly Poroshenko has seized on Sunday's clash, pressing for the imposition of martial law in 10 of the country's 27 regions, a decisive move that some say may boost his poll standings. Jan Surotchak, senior director for Transatlantic Strategy at the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based democracy-promotion non-profit, acknowledges that Poroshenko could profit from the clash in domestic political terms, “if he is able to focus his allies in the West to be more supportive.”
But he says, “In the end, of course, that is not what this is about.” Surotchak sees Sunday's incident as not just being about Putin's short-term domestic political needs or Poroshenko's seizing on it to try to improve his own election prospects. “Most importantly what Moscow was trying to achieve is what it has tried to do now for the better part of the last five years, and that is destabilize Ukraine.”
Western and Ukraine officials say there has been a pattern of heightened Russian activity in the Donbas region, as well as the Sea of Azov for the past few weeks. Speaking three days before the maritime clash, Stepan Poltorak, Ukraine's defense minister, cautioned that the Donbas conflict was re-entering an "active phase," saying he expected more open moves by Russia.
Western officials say they are taking those Ukrainian warnings seriously and acknowledge there has been a ratcheting up by Russia of incidents in the Sea of Azov since Russia completed in May the building of a bridge across the strait linking the Russian mainland to Crimea. Russia has increased sharply the number of armed vessels patrolling the Kerch Strait, and cargo ships trying to reach Ukraine's Azov ports — Mariupol and Berdyansk — have found themselves subject to more Russian inspections and week-long delays, resulting in a 33 percent decrease in freight traffic.
West shares blame
Sunday's incident, Ukrainian officials say, is a direct result of the lack of Western reaction to the unfolding imposition of a de facto sea border, which has been slowly but surely throttling access to the Sea of Azov and the Ukraine's important Mariupol industrial region. The Kremlin felt emboldened, they say.
How all this will play out when Trump and Putin meet in Buenos Aires later this week isn't clear. When asked whether it will have any impact on the encounter between the two leaders, Kremlin spokesman Peskov said the clash in the Kerch Strait won't affect preparations for the meeting.
Putin may be banking, say American officials, on reducing any fallout from the Kerch clash by pledging to enforce U.N. sanctions on North Korea ahead of a planned U.S.-North Korea summit next month, something he was urged to do earlier this month by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during an exchange at an Asian summit meeting.
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