Russia’s detention of three Ukrainian naval vessels and the temporary blocking of the Kerch strait are an escalation of tension between the two countries. The question is: why do it?
So far, two serious arguments for Russian actions have emerged. The first roots Russian actions in geopolitical motivations. The second explanation looks to domestic factors. Based on the evidence so far, it seems most likely that this is a limited demonstration of Russian power in the Sea of Azov rather than a step towards wider conflict. 1Note/caveat: the situation remains in considerable flux, so this could be all be wrong by tomorrow ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Perform random acts of geopolitical aggression
The more convincing arguments revolve around geopolitical factors. These largely hinge on whether the events signal an escalation in the Russia-Ukraine conflict or whether this is a demonstration of Russian power and resolve in the region.
As Mark Galeotti noted in a Twitter thread, Russia wants to control the Sea of Azov in the long run. Building the Kerch Strait bridge was motivated, at least in part, by the desire to control access to the sea. Russia demonstrated that it can do so when it blocked traffic passing under the bridge.
Reminding Ukraine that it can cut off traffic to ports at Mariupol and Berdyansk achieves two goals. First, it gives another way for Russia to exert pressure on Ukraine in order to achieve policy goals, much in the same way that it uses gas shipments. Second, it opens the opportunity to redraw the terms of access to the sea. If Russia thinks that it can extract rents for allowing passage to those ports, then demonstrating it can do so might help explain the strategy.2If this is the thinking, it seems unlikely to work, as any Ukrainian government would have to consider the political backlash to giving into Russian blackmail
Of course, this argument does not provide a satisfactory answer to the question of timing. Russia has detained more than 150 merchant ships since the Kerch Strait bridge opened in May, but this is the first time it has fired on Ukrainian naval vessels. Nothing on the ground (or water) has changed significantly, so we don’t have an obvious answer to ‘why now’ the question.
The alternative geopolitical explanation is that this is a first step towards further conflict. This makes the question of timing more straightforward (although more speculative). Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko suggested as much in a televised speech yesterday, claiming that Ukrainian intelligence services had reports of a planned Russian ground incursion into Ukraine. Russia might use the Azov clash as a pretext for an attack on Ukraine to grab more territory.
While possible, this seems less likely than the above scenario. In the summer of 2014, Putin decided against continuing to escalate the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. He also dropped any putative plans to annex parts of Eastern Ukraine, disappointing many Russian nationalists who promoted the concept of ‘Novorossiya’. Russia continued to supply rebels with troops and equipment, but maintained a thin veneer of deniability by not acknowledging their presence there.
Openly introducing Russian troops into Ukraine would be a massive escalation from that pattern. Putin has shown a high tolerance for risk-taking, but invading Ukraine would cement Russia’s status as an international pariah for the foreseeable future and return unclear geopolitical gains. Moreover, large scale fighting would further strain on Russia’s budget for domestic economic development and social protection.
Domestic politics – the tail wagging the dog?
This brake on Russian escalation connects the geopolitical argument with the domestic one. Some analysts have suggested that Russian actions were motivated by Putin’s falling popularity, which has declined in the aftermath of the pension reforms. After all, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea the last time Putin’s ratings were at this level.
There are a few problems, however, with this argument. Putin’s popularity did spike in March 2014 after the Crimean annexation, but that popularity boost was almost certainly a side benefit rather than the motivation for Russian actions then. Detaining Ukrainian ships does not have the same symbolic import as annexing Crimea. This makes current events less valuable from a diversionary standpoint. Moreover, Putin’s popularity ratings have stabilized in the few months, so a diversionary conflict now makes less sense now.
Moreover, the aforementioned risk of disrupting a fragile Russian economy might be enough to balance any conflict-driven popularity boost. Sure, Putin’s popularity soared in 2014 despite severe economic problems, but Russians may not be as enthusiastic for a repeat performance four years later.
The most reasonable interpretation is that this is more likely a demonstration of Russian military strength in the Azov basin, not a precursor to broader armed aggression against Ukraine. Of course, there always is the risk of miscalculation, misinterpretation and mistakes that spiral into a wider conflict. Preventing that will require cool heads on both sides and a concerted EU, NATO and US diplomatic effort to back Ukraine’s rights in the Sea of Azov.