Alwaght- After a period of calm in the Russian-Ukrainian relations, on Saturday, Russian gunboats and three Ukrainian naval ships faced off in the Kerch Strait off Crimea Peninsula. The Russian navy boats fired on the two frigates and a towboat of the Ukrainian navy while the Ukrainian vessels were sailing from the Black Sea toward the Sea of Azov. The firing left a number of the Ukrainian crew injured. The strategic strait is close to Crimea which joined the Russian Federation following a referendum held in March 2014.
Following the incident, the Western countries pointed the fingers of blame at Russia. The Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at an emergency meeting of the country’s National Security Council called for a two-month martial law, a proposal quickly approved by the parliament.
Moscow referred the case to the United Nations Security Council, asking for an emergency meeting. The UNSC, however, rejected the Russian proposal.
Alwaght has conducted an interview with Hassan Besheshtipour, a Russian affairs expert, asking him about the aspects of the new escalation of tensions between Moscow and Kiev.
What are each sides’ possible goals behind the escalation?
When asked about the reasons behind the new tensions between the two countries, Mr Beheshripour said that after the annexation of the Crimea Peninsula, Russia now considers the waterway its own territory and so prevents any unauthorized passing of the Ukrainian vessels from the Kerch Strait. This is in conflict with the Ukrainian insistence which suggests that its ships have every right for sailing in the Black Sea and pass to the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait.
He continued that some argue that Moscow has intentionally stirred a crisis with Kiev in order to arouse waves of nationalism in support of the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some others yet argue that it is Ukraine to blame as the main provocateur of the encounter. Ukraine is scheduled to hold its presidential election in March 2019 and this escalation is possibly designed by Poroshenko so that he can play anti-Russian, win the upcoming election, and strengthen rejuvenated Ukrainian nationalism.
“This makes the judgment on which side is really the culprit so difficult. But what is glaringly apparent is that the skirmish between Russia and Ukraine is detrimental to Moscow, Kiev, and the European security in general. This crisis, on the other side, can play into the hands of the US, the only party which can take advantage of the incident.”
Martial law, Kiev’s pretext to quell the eastern separatists
Alwaght asked the expert about the drives behind the Ukrainian parliament to approve the Poroshenko-proposed martial law for the next two months. He replied that two provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine have majority population of ethnic Russians who seek split from Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation. Their pressing for separation inflicted a serious crisis in the two regions since 2014, the year the pro-Western opposition ousted the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Mr Beheshtipor went on: “A state of emergency and martial law will naturally give Mr Poroshenko special powers that allow him to spread the central government’s rule to the two regions. Perhaps this measure is a pretext to the implementation of scenarios which drew warning from the Kremlin leaders. After all, such a scenario can destabilize the western borders of Russia afresh.”
Russia-West disputes and Moscow’s final word
Mr Beheshtipour was asked also for a comment on the failure of the UNSC to hold a session at Russia’s suggestion. He answered that the rejection of Russian-proposed UNSC meeting on the situation has roots in the conflicting interests of the five members of the Security Council. He added that France and Britain opposed the Moscow-drafted resolution and in next steps, Russia and China will reject a Ukraine-backed resolution.
“Russia was aware that its UNSC agenda will face the Western rejection. But it deliberately sent the case to the UN to give the West the final word. Over the past few years, Moscow has been insisting on resorting to the UN mechanism as the best way to settle various crises. Now too, it resorted first to the UN to avoid being accused of undermining the UN, circumventing the resolutions, and violating the international law and so it keeps its hands open for possible use of force like what happened in 2014.”
De-escalation by crisis management
The Iranian expert was asked for comment on where this situation will go in the future. He ruled out intensification of tension between the two countries or in eastern Ukraine. He believes that due to a high degree of influence of possible Ukrainian crisis on the western borders of Russia, it is highly unlikely that the crisis develops to dangerous levels. After all, he noted, the two parties are aware that a direct military confrontation will be damaging to both sides, although with various degrees.
“So, we can say that this is a limited crisis and is highly unlikely to unfold further as two sides will seek to manage the situation.”