Monday

18th Feb 2019

Opinion

The Azov crisis will backfire

  • Vladimir Putin's game plan has been to say the Crimea is a 'done deal' over which there would be no negotiations - while pretending Russia was not militarily engaged in eastern Ukraine (Photo: kremlin.ru)

There are three inter-related reasons for the escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict that became hot on Sunday (25 November)when a Russian naval ship rammed a Ukrainian tug boat, wounding Ukrainian sailors who were taken as prisoners, while Russia captured three Ukrainian vessels.

The first is the unresolved status of the Crimea, with the Azov Sea lying to its east, which Russia occupied in spring 2014.

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The Crimea is not included in the two Minsk agreements negotiated in September 2014 and February 2015 when Germany and France, negotiating on behalf of the EU, agreed under Russian pressure to not include this question.

Although the US and UK were signatories to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum giving Ukraine security assurances in return for de-nuclearising, president Barack Obama and prime minister David Cameron were both passive when faced with Russia's annexation of the Crimea.

Vladimir Putin's game plan has been to say the Crimea is a done deal over which there would be no negotiations while pretending Russia was not militarily engaged in eastern Ukraine.

Russia's claim to the Azov as a 'Russian sea' repeats its creeping annexation conducted in Georgia and elsewhere after the initial annexation of regions.

Ukraine's vessels on Sunday were in internationally-recognised waters when they were attacked by Russia in an act of military piracy.

Secondly, Russian leaders are frustrated by the turning of events in Ukraine where their influence is in terminal decline.

President Petro Poroshenko is detested in Moscow because he has committed himself to ensuring Russian influence is removed from Ukraine. He has spearheaded the drive to incorporate the goals of Nato and EU membership in the constitution.

The seriousness with which Russian leaders see their influence in terminal decline could be seen in the sharp response to the Constantinople Patriarch granting Ukraine's Orthodox Church independence (autocephaly) from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Putin convened an emergency meeting of the Russian Security Council as the Russian Orthodox Church split from Constantinople - a religious schism of such magnitude last seen in the reformation.

Thirdly, Putin is having no success in pressuring Ukraine to succumb to Russian demands for a peace agreement in the Donbas.

March 2019 election

Many candidates in the upcoming Ukrainian elections are playing with anti-war populism to attract voters fed up with five years of war.

Of the candidates in the upcoming elections Poroshenko stands out as refusing to agree to Putin's pressure for a peace deal.

The editor of Russia's liberal-leaning Ekho Moscow radio believes that Putin is therefore supporting Yulia Tymoshenko and the less popular pro-Russian Yuriy Boyko.

When Ukrainian citizens were asked who they believed Moscow would like to see elected in Ukraine they pointed to Boyko and Tymoshenko.

Although Russian nationalists like Putin are convinced they 'understand' Ukraine, it is precisely because of their stereotypes about the country being 'Russian' that they fail to comprehend the strength of Ukrainian national identity or the dynamics of domestic developments.

This was clearly seen in Putin's badly misjudged strategy in 2014 which has turned Ukraine away from Russia and undermined its soft power influence.

In undertaking this military piracy, Putin hopes to undermine Poroshenko's election chances but in fact will have three undesirable knock-on effects for Moscow.

It will increase Ukrainian patriotism yet again.

The drive to Orthodox independence will proceed quicker as bishops flee the sinking Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

Finally, Putin's nightmare of Poroshenko's re-election will be even certain as Ukrainians rally around the flag.

Ukrainians will understand that next year's March election is not just to elect a new president but also a commander-in-chief who will have to deal with five more years of Putin until he ends his current term in 2024.

Putin's Azov sea escapade will prove to be another strategic blunder on the same lines as that in 2014 when he first attacked Ukraine.

Taras Kuzio is a professor at the National University Kiev Mohyla Academy and the co-author of The Sources of Russia's Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order

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