Why Russia's Seizure of Ukrainian Vessels Matters to the U.S.
William McHenry and Adam Twardowski
In late November, Russia seized three naval Ukrainian vessels traveling to the Ukrainian city of Mariupol through the Kerch Strait, which connects Russian-occupied Crimea and the Russian mainland. Although the Kerch Strait is in fact shared territory, Russia accused the vessels of violating its territorial waters. For years, Russia has blocked numerous Ukrainian vessels from entering or leaving the Sea of Azov in a broader effort aimed at intimidation. A number of the captured Ukrainian sailors were flown to Moscow, while others were detained by Crimean courts and charged with “illegally crossing the Russian border,” meaning that an end to the standoff is nowhere in sight.
Why does this matter, and what, if anything, should the West do?
First, Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian ships and blockade of merchant's vessels represents a significant maritime flare-up in the standoff between Ukraine and Russia over the latter’s illegal annexation of Crimea. But it’s not clear what Russia’s objectives are here, whether this incident was ordered by the Kremlin, or if it escalated upwards from the trigger-happy local Russian military commanders (the Russian FSB has increasingly been harassing Ukrainian ships that seek passage through the strait). As one expert noted, Russia is using this incident to further “normalize the idea that Crimea is part of Russia.”
With the United States consumed by internal political drama and NATO weakened by internal fractures, Russia may be testing Western reaction to see if tolerance for its misbehavior is higher than it was a few years ago. The Kremlin may also be taking steps to shore up his internal popularity, which had been falling in the wake of very unpopular decisions to gradually raise the retirement age. (Putin has long used the specter of external aggression to divert domestic attention from Russia’s internal problems.) Either scenario could lead to more escalation or a rapid cooling off depending on the outcomes that Putin observes.
Second, Russian behavior in the Sea of Azov demonstrates that Western sanctions aimed at punishing it for the seizure of Crimea and ongoing intervention in eastern Ukraine have failed to deter it. Given the high strategic value Russia places on keeping Ukraine firmly within its orbit, Western policy has not inflicted a sufficiently high cost on Moscow to prevent it from violating international law. In fact, recent research suggests that sanctions on Russia have had mixed results at best in reducing public support for the Kremlin's aggressive policies, and, thus, policymakers should explore other more creative options to deter Putin.
Third, despite the reemergence of “great power competition” as a term in U.S. strategic discourse, the United States and Europe are as strategically unmoored today as they were in 2014 when Russia first dismembered Ukraine and prevented it from integrating into the West. What this means is that although there is greater understanding in the West of Russian anger over NATO expansion in the 1990s, and more recently dangling the prospect of greater European integration over Ukraine, Western policymakers have not yet demonstrated they have the strategic will or political courage to make clear to Russia that its grievances over U.S. policy in the 1990s do not give it a veto over the rights of sovereign nations to conduct their own foreign policy.
What should the United States do?
Russia is counting on the United States and its allies to calculate that supporting Ukraine with additional lethal and non-lethal aid exposes them to unacceptably high risk of escalation with Russia. But the only side this risk serves to constrain is the West. Russia can be deterred if their assumptions about internal Western paralysis over how to respond to Russia are proven wrong. Indeed, as Michael Kofman has argued, Russia “leverages agility and a simplified chain of command” coupled with the slow and predictable re-active actions of the West to weaken the post-World War II international order.
President Trump was right to call off a formal meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Argentina in response to Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian vessels (even though they spoke informally). But this is not enough. Trump should surprise Putin, and perhaps the world, by providing Ukraine with short-term financial support in the form of loans to the ports affected by the crisis, and, in the longer term, the US Coast Guard should expand its program of support to Ukraine’s Navy.
The Trump administration should be mindful of the fragile domestic political situation in Ukraine in the run-up to next year’s elections. In response to Russia’s behavior, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko imposed martial law along its border with Crimea and Russia. While there’s certainly some military utility to this decision, US policymakers should pressure Poroshenko to respect human rights in developing and implementing policy responses to Russian aggression, such as his decision to implement martial law. The regions where Ukraine has imposed martial law are skeptical of the government in Kyiv, and, therefore, are more vulnerable to Russian disinformation efforts. And more importantly, Russia could destabilize Ukraine’s electoral processes by leveraging its influence with these segments of Ukrainian society.
There is little doubt that Russian aggression in the Sea of Azov represents the Kremlin’s further use of grey zone tactics to challenge the post-Cold War European order. To counter these tactics, the United States, together with its European allies, should develop more rapid and creative policy responses, or Russia will feel emboldened to provoke similar crises in the future.