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Tom Clonan: 'If cool heads prevail, the Kerch situation should not escalate ... but we don't live in a time of cool heads'

How the Russia-Ukraine naval clash may play out in a Trump and Brexit world.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

AS INTERNATIONAL LEADERS and finance ministers prepare to meet in Buenos Aires this week for the 2018 G20 Summit, the Russian Coastguard has caught the world’s attention in a curious incident off the Crimean Peninsula.

Apart from its timing – immediately in advance of meetings between US President Donald Trump and the heads of state of many of his Nato allies and Vladimir Putin this week – the naval clash in the Kerch Strait is emblematic of the challenges that face both Russia and other world powers as the international world order enters increasingly choppy waters.

Russia, controversially and by force of arms, annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Since then, the Russian Black Sea Fleet has consolidated its grip on the narrow strait of Kerch that controls access between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.

Indeed, in May of this year, Vladimir Putin himself opened the $3.69 billion (€3.25 billion) Kerch bridge which spans the strait and creates a permanent land-link between Crimea and the Russian Mainland. On Sunday, the Russians blocked the Kerch Strait to international shipping by simply anchoring a large supertanker under their shiny new bridge.

The Kerch Strait also controls access between Ukraine’s western and eastern sea ports. On Sunday, three vessels of Ukraine’s tiny navy – two armoured naval artillery gunboats and a naval tug – attempted to pass through the Kerch Strait on their way from the Ukrainian port of Odessa to the port of Mariupol, one of the last government controlled cities in eastern Ukraine.

This strategically important port is the closest access point by sea for the Ukrainian government to the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, currently under the control of Russian separatists. Thousands of civilians and armed elements have been killed in the bitter pro-Moscow insurgency in eastern Ukraine in recent years.

Russia has consistently denied any formal military involvement in the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and Russian paratroopers and special forces there have been famously referred to as the ‘Little Green Men’ or the ‘Ghost Army’ in Donbass.

In Sunday’s naval incident however, the Russian Coastguard in clearly marked vessels, and in a confrontation that has been filmed, opened fire on the two Ukrainian naval gunboats, and rammed the naval tug that they were escorting.

Russian forces – under the control and direction of the FSB – then boarded the Ukrainian vessels and detained them. It is reported that some Ukrainian sailors were injured in the Russian operation.

This is significant in that Russian forces have acted overtly, in broad daylight, to intervene militarily and preemptively against Ukrainian forces in shared territorial waters agreed by international treaty in 2003. Regional and international reaction has been predictable.

Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko convened Ukraine’s National Defence and Security Council in Kiev and called for the imposition of martial law in the country whilst placing the armed forces on full combat mobilisation.

Both Nato and the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, have called for ‘restraint’ and ‘de-escalation’. Both Ukraine and Russia have sought an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council for today.

Trump, Nato and Brexit 

So, what next? From a purely military perspective, despite Kiev’s calls for martial law and combat mobilisation of its forces, they are no match for the Russian military. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet – with large bases in Sevastapol in Crimea and Nvorossiysk, close to the Kerch Strait – has dozens of fully operational warships and at least six submarines, along with approximately 25,000 sailors and marines.

Ukraine’s navy – now depleted by three vessels – has only one frigate and around 6,000 personnel. If Russia chose to do so, it could easily blockade the Kerch Strait – indefinitely.

Apparently however, Russia has re-opened the Strait to international shipping having effectively halted Ukrainian naval activity for now. For the moment, in advance of the G20 summit, the situation may remain as a tense stand-off – a state of affairs that has characterised relations between Kiev and Moscow for some time.

The Russian operation seems to have been carefully calculated and choreographed to create a military and diplomatic crisis without a dramatic loss of life. Given the disparity in forces in the region, the Russians could easily have sunk all three Ukrainian vessels with a large loss of life.

The manner in which the operation was mounted, and the fact that the Ukrainian ships and their crews are detained by Russia, suggest to me that Vladimir Putin is testing the resolve and coherence of Nato and the European Union in the face of armed aggression in eastern Europe.

He does so at a time when Nato’s principal partner, the United States, is openly questioning the alliance and its mutual defence commitments. In July of this year, at the Nato Summit in Brussels, President Trump harangued his Nato partners in what some described as a ‘rant’ in which he threatened “grave consequences” for Nato allies if they did not increase their military spending to 4% of GDP.

Since coming to office, Trump has consistently complained that the US is doing all of the ‘heavy lifting’ in terms of defence and security cooperation and that if its 29 allies do not increase their spending, America would ‘go our own way’.

Putin’s intervention in the Kerch Strait, in advance of the G20 Summit, whilst provocative, is yet another calculated risk on his part designed to rattle and test the transatlantic relationship between Washington and its European allies.

He does so as the Trump presidency – with increasingly erratic behavior at major international summits – continues to erode the political, diplomatic and military capital of the United States and the western alliance.

Russia’s military adventures under Putin and his wily Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov – including the invasion of Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, and covert Black Operations throughout Europe, along with their spectacularly successful intervention in Syria – have been largely beneficial to the Moscow regime. However, their military capacity and power projection through force is limited.

Russian military spending under Putin increased dramatically to a high of almost $90 billion in 2016, or 5.5% of Russia’s GDP. However, due to the economic pressures created by international sanctions, Russia’s military spending has dropped to 4% of GDP in the last year, with a commitment from Putin to reduce to 3% within five years in order to better fund Russia’s ailing domestic economy and healthcare programmes.

Hypothetically speaking, if a foreign power – with latent superpower aspirations – wanted to undermine the political, diplomatic and military power of the United States, and to disrupt and weaken the coherence of the European Union and the transatlantic alliance, they’d rejoice at the Trump presidency and Brexit.

Sadly, in reality, this is the de-facto realpolitik that provides the context to Sunday’s curious incident in the Kerch Strait. If cool heads prevail, the situation should not escalate. However, we do not live in a time of cool heads and calm, rational leadership. Let’s hope for the best.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter here.  

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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