Tuesday

10th Dec 2019

Russia opens third front in war on Ukraine

  • Russian warships during naval parade earlier this year (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

Russia has fired on and seized Ukrainian military vessels, prompting EU and US alarm on an escalation of the war on Ukraine.

The dramatic events took place on Sunday (25 November), as EU leaders returned home from Brussels after their Brexit summit.

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  • Kerch Strait bridge, connecting Russia-occupied Crimea to Russia, being used to block commercial shipping to Ukraine ports (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

They began when a Russian coastguard vessel rammed a Ukrainian navy tugboat on its way through international waters to the port of Mariupol in the Azov Sea, Ukrainian authorities said.

Shortly afterward, Russian warships opened fire on two other Ukrainian ships, wounding six sailors, two of them seriously.

They then boarded and seized all three vessels, capturing 23 Ukrainian sailors, in an operation involving attack helicopters and fighter jets.

Russia also blocked passage of all commercial shipping under a bridge over the Kerch Strait, connecting the Azov Sea to the Black Sea, imposing an economic blockade on the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk.

The unprovoked aggression marks the opening of a third front in Russia's war on Ukraine, which began in 2014 when a popular uprising in Kiev overthrew a pro-Russian government and Ukraine began to align itself with the West.

Russia reacted by annexing Crimea and building up its forces there, including the deployment of nuclear missiles.

It also launched a covert invasion of east Ukraine, in ongoing fighting which has already claimed more than 10,000 lives and displaced millions of people.

Sunday's events could be designed to restore Russian leader Vladimir Putin's popularity at home, which has slumped to a 10-year low due to economic woes, Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny said.

It could also signal the start of wider hostilities, a senior EU diplomat told EUobserver, to create what Putin, in 2014, called "Novorossiya" - the seizure of territory connecting Russia-occupied Crimea and east Ukraine, cutting off Ukraine from the Black Sea.

UN Security Council

The US reacted by calling an emergency session of the UN Security Council in New York on Monday morning.

The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, also retweeted a comment by a US reporter in Ukraine, Nolan Peterson, who said: "Tonight, a war that many people in America can only imagine thanks to Hollywood movies, teeters on the razor-thin edge of becoming real".

The EU foreign service was more coy, urging "all" concerned, including Ukraine, to "act with utmost restraint to de-escalate the situation immediately."

Nato issued a similar statement, saying: "We call for restraint and de-escalation".

They spoke after Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko scrambled the Ukrainian navy and convened a parliament vote on declaring martial law, while protesters fired smoke grenades and burned tyres outside the Russian embassy in Kiev.

Pavlo Klimkin, the Ukrainian foreign minister, also warned it was "likely ... that Russia plans further acts of aggression at seas or on the ground".

Other Western reactions were more hawkish than the EU, however.

"This escalation is proof that Russia does not seem to be interested in any kind of outcome from the Ukraine negotiation process," Norbert Roettgen, a German MP from chancellor Angela Merkel's party, who chairs the foreign affairs committee in the Bundestag, said.

"We strongly condemn Russia's actions ... which may pose a threat to the stability of European security," the Polish foreign ministry said.

"Canada condemns Russian aggression towards Ukraine," Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland also said.

Sanctions?

The developments come as EU countries prepare to extend the duration of economic sanctions on Russia at a summit on 13 December.

Ukraine's Klimkin said the EU and US should go further, with "tough action in consequence" of the events.

These could include "a complete asset freeze on at least one major Russian bank, such as Sberbank, VTB, or Gazprombank," Michael Carpenter, from a US think tank, the Atlantic Council, said.

The US, which already gave Ukraine anti-tank missiles to deter Russian armour in east Ukraine, should now give it land-based anti-ship missiles, he added.

"Nato ... should send in naval ships in the Sea of Azov", the Atlantic Council's Anders Aslund also said.

The US has steadily increased sanctions on Russia this year despite questions over US president Donald Trump's personal relations with Putin.

But it remains to be seen whether the EU, which acts by consensus, will do anything, given pro-Russian sentiment in the chancelleries of Austria, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, and Italy.

The Ukraine escalation comes amid wider Russian aggression in Europe, which includes sabre-rattling in the Baltic Sea region, an attempted assassination in the UK, cyber attacks, and election meddling.

Armed Russian warplanes also simulated an attack on a Belgian frigate taking part in Nato policing in the Baltic Sea last Thursday, the Belgian military said on Sunday.

"This is a clear signal from the Russians: 'Look what we can do and what we dare'," the frigate's campaign, Peter Ramboer, told Belgian press.

France calls for EU 'army' to contain Russia

The EU needs a "real European army" to stand up to Russia, the French president has said. It must also fight populism at home by being less "ultra-liberal".

Opinion

The Azov crisis will backfire

Vladimir Putin's nightmare of Petro Poroshenko's re-election will be even certain as Ukrainians rally around the flag. Next March's election is not just to elect a new president but also a commander-in-chief to deal with five more years of Putin.

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