Why Ukraine Challenged Russia at the Kerch Strait

6 MINS READNov 26, 2018 | 21:40 GMT
Cargo ships pass under a bridge over the Kerch Strait, which joins the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.

Cargo ships pass under a bridge over the Kerch Strait, which joins the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Ukraine challenged Russia's claim that the area is now Russian territorial waters after the seizure of Crimea.

The Big Picture

Stratfor has noted that Ukraine-Russia skirmishes like the recent clash at the Kerch Strait would become more likely and that the Sea of Azov remains a flashpoint between the two countries. In addition, Ukraine is emerging as a key battleground between the United States and Russia as part of the wider great power competition.

What Happened

The Russian-Ukrainian dispute over maritime access through the Kerch Strait escalated on Nov. 25 when paramilitary forces from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) disabled, boarded and captured two small Ukrainian naval vessels and a tugboat attempting to pass through the strait. Six of the 24 Ukrainian crew members detained by Russia were injured in the forced boarding. The strait, positioned at the eastern end of Crimea, connects the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea. The Ukrainian government in Kiev immediately denounced the Russian actions and accused Moscow of military aggression. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko also declared that a state of martial law would begin Nov. 28 and last for 30 days (but could be subsequently extended). Ukraine and Russia requested an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

A Treaty, Crimea and Trade 

According to Russia, its annexation of Crimea in 2014 invalidated the 2003 agreement with Ukraine over the use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. With control of the Crimea, Russia argues that the waters around the Kerch Strait are effectively its territorial waters. However, Kiev and most of the rest of the world does not recognize the Russian takeover of Crimea, and Ukraine insists on its right to pass through the strait and the sea without interference. A few months ago, Ukraine announced that it would build a naval base on the Sea of Azov by the end of the year, raising tensions. Recently, Russia has intensified its interference with Ukrainian maritime traffic in the area. For Ukraine, access to the Sea of Azov is critical for economic and security reasons. Without unhindered traffic through the strait, it would effectively lose maritime access to key ports such as Mariupol. 

Why It Matters

The biggest current risk is the escalation of this skirmish into a broader military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. Both countries are already embroiled in a semifrozen conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, so escalation there is already a distinct possibility. Given Ukraine's limited naval capabilities, however, Kiev can do little in response to Russia at sea — any attempt by Ukraine to force its claim on the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait would fail. And the threat of wider escalation appears relatively contained because the Ukrainians haven't shown any signs of preparing a military riposte.

But other motives — both global and domestic — could lie behind Ukraine's latest naval foray into the disputed waters. Given its military weakness in comparison to Russia, especially on the seas, it is in Kiev's interest to highlight Russian aggression to the rest of the world — and particularly to the European Union and the United States. A U.S. rapprochement with Russia that leaves it in control of Crimea and leaves Russian-aligned forces in control of much of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine would be a disaster for Kiev. And mere days before U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Argentina, Ukraine is pressing its maritime claims and highlighting Russia's belligerence. However, it might not have expected Russia to go so far as to board its vessels and capture its sailors. Declaring martial law also serves to intensify the spotlight on Russia's actions and Ukraine's position.

This map shows the relative positions of Russian and Ukrainian naval forces in the Black Sea

For Ukraine, the payoff from this maritime move could lead either to additional EU and U.S. pressure on Russia through new sanctions or to new direct assistance, especially in the form of military equipment or increased NATO forays into the Black Sea. NATO could also step up efforts to build up the Ukrainian navy, but given the force's current state, that would entail providing support, training and equipment for years. And the degree to which Russia enforces its claims also matters in the Western response — the more belligerent it appears in denying Ukrainian access and the firmer it responds to Ukraine's attempts to press its claims, the risk of drawing more EU and U.S. pressure rises.

In addition, domestic motivations could be playing a part in the Ukrainian gambit and the subsequent declaration of martial law. Presidential elections are set for March 2019, and Poroshenko, who doesn't appear to be doing too well in the polls, is at serious risk of losing. Some in the opposition have decried the declaration of martial law as a ploy by the president to either delay or manipulate the election. The extent of martial law restrictions is unclear so far, and not every measure possible under the law will necessarily be enacted. Some provisions allow the government to limit and regulate media, including telecommunications, radio and the press. They also permit a postponement of presidential elections, creating the possibility that martial law could be used for political advantage. The measures the government enforces, therefore, will indicate whether a domestic political agenda, as well as national security interests, are motivating it to magnify a skirmish with Russia.

Whatever Kiev's reasoning, the weekend's events are taking their toll on the fragile Ukrainian economy. Its currency, the hryvnia, dropped as much as 1.6 percent against the U.S. dollar on Nov. 26, and the country's borrowing costs rose to their highest level since a bond sale last year. Yakiv Smoliy, governor of Ukraine's central bank, reportedly met with representatives from the country's major banks on Nov. 26 to reassure them about Ukraine's financial stability. The country has been under an International Monetary Fund reform program since 2015. So far, the IMF has not indicated that martial law would put the program in jeopardy. However, it will probably keep a close eye on the economic policy decisions that Kiev makes while under martial law to see whether they deviate from the IMF program.

Editor's Note: This graphic accompanying this analysis has been amended to remove reference to the size of Russia's Black Sea fleet.

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