Streetwise Professor

November 29, 2018

The Incident in the Kerch Strait: Validating Existing Lines of Conflict, Rather Than Portending a Forcible Shift in Those Lines

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:45 pm

The big news over the weekend was the Russian firing on, ramming of, and seizure of several Ukrainian naval vessels attempting to transit the Kerch Strait.  Most of the news coverage has been hopelessly inept, especially with regards to the background and legalities.  This piece from Defense News is the most coherent and thorough that I’ve read.

My quick take is that given international maritime law and the 2003 Russia-Ukraine agreement on the Sea of Azov, Ukraine is right de jure–especially in light of the fact that no major nation acknowledges Russia’s seizure of Crimea.  But Russia has the upper hand de facto.  As the expression goes, possession is nine-tenths of the law.  Russia has seized possession of both sides of the Strait, and has the military force to enforce that possession.  And it did.

Russian justifications for their actions are risible.  But their explanations of so many actions are risible.  That may be the point: “we say this bullshit that you know is bullshit and we know is bullshit to let you know we don’t give a shit what you think.”

As the Defense News article states, Ukrainian naval vessels had transited the Kerch Strait in late-September without Russian reaction.  But this time it was different.


Presumably in part because the September foray embarrassed the Russians, who have been ratcheting up interference with civilian vessels since that happened.  Moreover, as many have suggested, Putin may be looking to bolster his patriotic bona fides.  He certainly can’t be doing it to attract international favor, because the opposite has happened.

This raises an interesting thought: if Putin really thinks he needs a domestic political boost so badly that he is willing to draw international opprobrium (note that Trump canceled a meeting with him at the G-20 over this) to get it, what does that say about his domestic political position? Or at least his concerns about it.  A tsar confident in his domestic standing wouldn’t feel it necessary to incur the cost of such a provocation.

Not that the cost is likely to be that high.  The Germans, in typical fashion, harrumphed about how horrible this is, but in the same breath said “Nordstream 2 is a go!”  But the episode probably makes any sanctions relief even less likely.

Revealed preference suggests two alternatives: (a) Putin figured that sanctions relief was extremely remote in any event, so the cost wasn’t that high, or (b) Putin actually doesn’t mind sanctions despite their evident toll on the Russian economy.  With regards to (b), note that sanctions often work to the advantage of those in power (e.g., Saddam, the Mullahs).  Pieces like this suggest that might be a real possibility.

What was Ukrainian president Poroshenko’s rationale?  He was likely appealing to his domestic audience, although a humiliating capture of a part of Ukraine’s pitiful remnant of a fleet hardly seems calculated to boost his re-election prospects.  Perhaps he was hoping for this very outcome, in the expectation that it would lead western countries to rally to Ukraine’s defense.  If so, he’s rather clueless.  It’s not as if the US and EU are unaware of Russia’s continuing predation against Ukraine: they’ve clearly acquiesced to the current status quo of frozen conflict, and the events in the Kerch Strait will not change that.  Poroshenko likely threw away a few ships and a couple of dozen sailors for nothing.

But in some respects, this is not surprising.  The Ukrainians are the Sovok Palestinians: they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and routinely self-inflict gaping wounds.

His declaration of martial law in parts of the country in the aftermath is highly weird, and raises questions about his real motives.

Does the incident portend a renewed Russian military assault on Ukraine?  I doubt it: it is more of an enforcement of existing redlines, rather than drawing new borders.  If the cost of bashing around a tugboat and a few minor combatants is bearable, the cost of a major move on the ground is a different matter altogether.

So the upshot is something like this.  The incident will not result in substantial increases in help for Ukraine.  It deepens and cements Russia’s isolation.  It is unlikely to portend a major escalation in the conflict.  In other words, it confirms and reinforces the status quo of a frozen conflict, rather than representing a new phase in the war.

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  1. There is a video showing the tugboat deliberately placing itself in the path of the vessel that struck it.
    An alternative explanation I have heard from ‘The Duran’ on YT is this is a Ukrainian election ploy. A concept worth exploring.

    Comment by NB — November 29, 2018 @ 8:34 pm

  2. @NB-I wouldn’t put much stock in the video. That kind of situation is inherently chaotic and figuring out who turned into whom is nigh-on impossible.

    I explicitly mentioned the Ukrainian election angle. As I said, if Poroshenko thinks a humiliating capture will help his re-election prospects, he’s a fool.

    Comment by cpirrong — November 29, 2018 @ 8:38 pm

  3. I think the most likely answer is that this declaration of martial law is just a way to punt elections into the long grass, it would make sense given that the US merely replaced a Russia-leaning oligarch with a Ukrainian oligarch who pretends to be fanciful towards the west, and the west pretends to believe what he says.

    The maidan crowd were duped hard and everything since the “revolution” from the Ukrainian side has just confirmed my suspicions.

    Besides, who gives a shit about some Sovok shithole like Ukraine? Putin can have it, it’s not like we actually care about it, if we wanted to laugh about it for years to come, we should have punted the issue over to the Europeans and their delusions of an EU army and told them to deal with the problem themselves.

    What’s the point of protecting a bunch of whiners with delusions of grandeur through Nato? Let them fail miserably at their attempts to establish themselves on the world stage against a country smaller than Italy in GDP terms.

    It’s working out great for them when it comes to the Iranian deal, i await with bated breath their “united” response to Putin.

    Comment by WZ — November 30, 2018 @ 7:54 am

  4. WZ, Ukraine is the largest country in Europe, and it is the last line of defense for Europe against Putler’s grandiose and ruthless ambitions.

    People in the US could learn a lot from Ukraine and other post-sovok union countries, from the standpoint of what happens under statism. Currently, in the US, the Commie Party, formerly known as the Democrats, is trying to re-create the sovok union in the US.

    Yes, Ukraine has made somewhat unsteady strides towards coming out of its sovok legacy – but people are still striving, and over 10,000 have died defending Ukraine against Putler’s invasion. Over 25,000 have been injured, and over 1 million have been displaced.

    All due to one maniacal, vicious Kremlinoid.

    This is just the latest squeeze by Putler, who has a ruthless and maniacal desire to stay in power. Part of that is projecting power, and “bringing roosha off its knees.”

    He will do anything possible to prove that democracy – as in Ukraine and Georgia – doesn’t work, so that his brand of “managed democracy” – a mafia state – continues in power.

    And it’s a way of pretending that sanctions are not really working.

    Comment by elmer — November 30, 2018 @ 9:04 am

  5. Ukraine deserves Western support, but the Ukrainians need to realize that Western support will only go so far. Nobody is going to fight Ukraine’s wars for them. But certainly aiding Ukraine so they can better defend themselves from Russian aggression is good, as is granting economic incentives in exchange for continued reform.

    Ukraine may be corrupt, but not only does Ukraine have a vibrant and active civil society, it has also made considerable progress for an FSU (former Soviet Union) country (outside of the Baltics and to a more limited degree Transcaucasian countries). Compared to Russia, Belarus, and the Stans, Ukraine stands out. It is the only one to have held competitive elections and transfers of power. It has freedom of speech, and people can (and do) openly criticize their leaders. It has actively prevented incipient dictators from sezing control. And since Maiden, there has been considerable progress in anti-corruption (though not enough). If compared to the non-FSU countries of the old Warsaw Pact, Ukraine is dysfunctional and corrupt. Compared to its FSU peers, its made amazing progress at becoming a modern, democratic state (but isn’t quite there yet).

    Ukraine is important because without controlling it, Russia can’t become a great power again. Without Ukraine, Russian ability to threaten Central Europe is severely constrained. Western support of Ukraine will be at a far lower cost than what it will need to spend to protect itself should Russia control Ukraine.

    Ukraine certainly needs more time to continue its anti-corruption process. Economic growth won’t resume until that happens. But once it does, Ukraine can develop a real economy based on value adding industries and achieve enough prosperity that it can resist Russia on its own and have less need of Western support.

    Comment by Chris — November 30, 2018 @ 12:43 pm

  6. @Professor, I think you are wrong on this one. Germany is already proposing strong new sanctions:

    “The European Union and the United States should consider banning from their ports Russian ships originating from the Sea of Azov“. That could be both ships, the Kremlin is visibly trembling.

    Comment by Ivan — November 30, 2018 @ 3:57 pm

  7. The source of the quote:

    Comment by Ivan — November 30, 2018 @ 4:00 pm

  8. @Ivan–Proves my point!

    Comment by cpirrong — November 30, 2018 @ 7:01 pm

  9. “The Ukrainians are the Sovok Palestinians…” This is unnecessarily offensive and not quite fair, as pointed out above.

    As for preventing “Russian ships coming… from the Sea of Azov from entering European or U.S. ports,” it wouldn’t be merely a pinprick – Rostov, a major city by Russian standards, would be cut off from the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. It’s low season for grain now, but in the summer up to 20% of Russia’s grain exports may get routed through Azov Sea ports, depending on the crop obviously. If it’s possible to keep out vessels coming from Russian Azov ports – and it’s a big “if” – the prohibition could be extended to other ports of origin.

    Comment by Alex K. — December 1, 2018 @ 4:28 am

  10. Chris said: Nobody is going to fight Ukraine’s wars for them.

    True – but I do want to mention something about support – and the Budapest Memorandum. Ukraine was the 3rd largest nuclear power in the world after the break-up of the sovok union (we can leave aside what that arsenal looked like).

    US foreign policy has been to keep nukes out of the hands of crazies. No success with roosha – but Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in return for assurances by the US, United Kingdom, and — roosha.

    The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances is a political agreement signed in Budapest, Hungary on 5 December 1994, providing security assurances by its signatories relating to Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

    Ukraine was given assurances – but found out the hard way that it was not a treaty. And of course, Putler/roosha kept giving Ukraine “assurances” about how it was a “bratniy narod” – brotherly nation neighbor – for Ukraine. Sovok speak.

    A little beady-eyed rat-faced Kremlinoid thug, Putler, broke yet another agreement, at the cost of lives and property, so he can remain in power and keep all the wealth that he and his fellow Kremlinoid thugs have stolen.

    There is a lesson – maybe several – in there somewhere.

    Comment by elmer — December 1, 2018 @ 9:47 am

  11. @Alex K. Ukraine has squandered massive amounts of international goodwill through its dysfunctional politics. Like the Palestinians. That is what I meant by the comparison.

    But little if any of those Russian grain exports from the Sea of Azov are going to Europe or the US. The Middle East, North Africa, and increasingly Asia are the biggest consumers of Russian wheat and other grains. Only under extraordinary circumstances (like this year’s drought) do major EU countries import wheat.

    To the extent that Russian wheat/grain does go to Europe, a restriction on ships originating from the Sea of Azov would just result in a game of musical chairs that would be a slight inconvenience to Russia. Just exchange destinations. Redirect a Rostov-Europe ship to Egypt, and have a Novorossiysk-Egypt ship to to Europe.

    Comment by cpirrong — December 2, 2018 @ 8:14 pm

  12. Once again: this is not about Ukraine. This is about the right, the duty and the burden of the United States to be the leader of the unipolar world, the supreme boss on Earth promoting and protecting the law. Of course Putins of the world resent that – having managed to avoid any responsibility to their own people, they want to be absolutely free from any responsibility at all.

    Yes, the US can walk away from that duty, it is a burden after all. Then good luck to us all, we will need a lot of it.

    Comment by LL — December 2, 2018 @ 9:43 pm


    Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a top candidate to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel as leader of the Christian Democrats, told public broadcaster ARD it would be “too radical” to withdraw political support for the project, but Berlin could reduce the amount of gas to flow through the pipeline.

    Comment by Ivan — December 3, 2018 @ 1:29 am

  14. Refraining from financing organized crime is too radical by the standards of contemporary German political class.No wonder the victory of AfD seems more inevitable by the day.

    Comment by Ivan — December 3, 2018 @ 1:36 am

  15. @cpirrong: “Sovok” is a loaded word, an anthropological term sometimes bordering on a slur. Ukraine’s missed opportunities might have been a by-product of its citizens’ Soviet mindset, but it’s not immediately obvious.

    “Redirect a Rostov-Europe ship to Egypt, and have a Novorossiysk-Egypt ship to to Europe.” Yes – by itself, it would only be a “slight inconvenience to Russia.” Still, it would open a new line of sanctions – yet another sword of Damocles over the Kremlin, since they could be potentially extended to other ports. Also, most of the sanctions on Russia since 2014 have been, individually, minor nuisances (excluding Rusal’s blacklisting, a hammer blow) but their cumulative impact is not negligible.

    Comment by Alex K. — December 5, 2018 @ 9:33 am

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