The recent naval incident off the Kerch Strait sends one clear message: The situation between Russia and Ukraine is inherently fraught with a real danger of war.
Given the deepening confrontation between Russia and the United States, and Ukraine’s close relations with America and NATO, such a war, should it break out, may not be easily contained. Thus, the situation needs to be handled with the utmost care. Political affinities and emotions should not stand in the way of exercising cold reasoning and assuming responsibility. No one should be given a license to provoke a shooting conflict that might engulf Europe.
An analysis of the developments off the coast of Crimea leads to the following conclusion. The Ukrainian vessels, en route from Odessa in the Black Sea to Mariupol in the Sea of Azov, sailed through the waters that Ukraine regards as its own, and Moscow, since 2014, sees as belonging to Russia, alongside Crimea.
The Ukrainian Navy also either failed to file a request with the Russians for passing through the Kerch Strait or filed it late, and did not wait for the Russians to respond. Thus, Kiev was making a statement: Russia’s annexation of Crimea is illegal; its control of the Kerch Strait is unacceptable; and freedom of navigation must be upheld.
The Russian coast guard responded forcefully. They physically blocked the strait, rammed one of the Ukrainian vessels, opened fire that injured three Ukrainian sailors, and detained all three craft with 24 crew members. As late as September 23, Russia allowed two Ukrainian ships to cross into the Sea of Azov on the basis of an agreed-upon procedure. This time, for whatever reasons, Kiev chose not to follow the established protocol.
The Russian authorities could hardly condone the Ukrainian breach of procedure: they were fully resolved to send their message about where Russia’s new borders lie. Moreover, Russian security services are genuinely worried about possible attacks against the recently constructed bridge across the Kerch Strait.