On 25 November three Ukrainian Navy ships entered the Russian territorial waters of the Kerch Straits, the narrow body of water that separates Russia from Crimea, travelling from the Black Sea in the direction of the Azov Sea. Because of the volume of shipping that passes along what is quite a tricky stretch to navigate, ships are required to file a request for passage with coastguards prior to entry. This the ships failed to do, despite repeated demands, continuing to violate Russian sovereignty, playing hide and seek for several hours in Russian waters. Eventually the authorities were obliged to fire warning shots, seize the vessels and detain the 24 sailors on board.
On inspection, two of the gunboats, the Berdyansk and the Nikopol, were found to be armed to the teeth and ready for combat. Said a spokesman for the Russian Coast Guard, the ships’ “artillery systems were loaded and placed into combat-ready mode”. On another ship, the Shishkov, coastguards found a document ordering the crew to “concentrate the efforts on a stealth passage” (‘Seized Ukrainian warships were armed beyond regular loadout’, RT, 8 December 2018). In short, the ships had been dispatched with the express purpose of stoking up a provocation against Russia. In doing this Kiev had no concern for the welfare even of its own sailors. It was only thanks to the extreme restraint of the Coast Guard that the incident was attended by no more than a few cuts and bruises. Indeed it is quite possible that Kiev was actively seeking a bloodier outcome, to lend colour to its allegations of ‘Russian aggression’.
As it is, the provocation has turned out to be something of a damp squib, eliciting from the West in general the routine condemnations of supposed ‘Russian aggression’ but finding some European voices less than enthusiastic about calls for increasing sanctions against Russia, let alone getting dragged into a war. When Ukraine President Poroshenko remarked to journalists that “We need the increased presence of warships from Germany and allied nations in the Black Sea to send a message and deter Russia”, Berlin ruled out sending in the gunboats. German foreign minister Heiko Maas gave him a diplomatic brush-off: “We do understand Ukrainian concerns, but what we do not want is militarisation of this conflict.” Former foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel was more forthright, denouncing a call from the Kiev Junta to shut international ports for Russian vessels based in Crimea and branding this as “a new edition of gunboat diplomacy”. Gabriel also went on television to accuse Kiev of trying to start a war between Germany and Russia, telling viewers: “I think that in no case should we let ourselves be drawn into a war through Ukraine,” adding “this is what Ukraine has tried [to do].” Meanwhile the German ambassador to Ukraine, Ernst Wolfgang Reichel, believed that “our main goal now is to prevent further escalation of this conflict, to ensure it does not spiral out of control. This is why many [EU] member states, including us, believe it would have been counterproductive to raise tensions by adding more sanctions now, when the level of tension is already quite high” (‘Berlin should not be “drawn into war” with Russia’, RT, 2 December 2018).
Nor has the US response to the Kerch incident been uniformly gungho. On the day it happened, Anders Aslund of the Atlantic Council think tank tweeted moaning that Trump “has written 9 tweets but none about the biggest question today: Russia’s new military aggression in Ukraine” and urging him not to do his planned bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin at the then upcoming G20 summit in Buenos Aires (Nathan Hodge, ‘Donald Trump’s silence on Ukraine could make a bad situation worse’, CNN, 26 November 2018).
Belatedly Trump caved into pressure and said he wouldn’t meet Putin after all. When it came to it, the two presidents exchanged a few words in passing – far fewer than those exchanged between Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel, be it noted.
The Kerch incident was at once seized upon by Poroshenko as the pretext for declaring martial law over large parts of the country for a month, imposing a racist ban on entry into certain areas for ethnic Russian males between the ages of 16 and 60, and giving the president wide powers to crack down on dissent. This is a crucial moment for the president, who faces a bruising leadership challenge from Yulia Tymoshenko’s rival oligarchic gang in the March 2019 presidential election. Declaring martial law gives him the chance to shut down dissent and portray himself as the nation’s saviour, or so he hopes. He badly needs a political make-over as he is being slaughtered in the opinion polls, not surprising given the depth of social chaos over which he is presiding. He may even have hoped that the martial law decree would clear the way to a postponement or cancellation of the election, though it seems that the Rada (parliament) has amended the decree to forbid this, and reportedly both German chancellor Angela Merkel and NATO boss Stoltenberg have said the election cannot be cancelled.
Impending Donbas offensive?
It is possible that the Kerch provocation may also be the prelude to a renewed offensive against the people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. Speaking for the Russian foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova has called on the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) to get on and monitor exactly what is going on in the Donbas region, stressing that “What is needed is a comprehensive picture on the military preparations by Ukraine, not some fragmented pieces of information.” Moreover, Ukrainian troops, having completed “intensive training courses with support from US, Canadian and British instructors”, are massing along the disengagement line in seeming readiness for offensive operations, she reports. There have even been suggestions that Kiev is preparing a staged chemical weapons attack to serve as a false flag pretext for a renewed offensive against the people of the Donbas (‘Kiev’s martial law is cover for offensive action against rebels’, RT, 5 December 2018). The last two major offensives launched by the Ukraine army and its fascist outriders ended in humiliating failure for the aggressors. It remains to be seen if Kiev is capable of learning from history.
Victory to the people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk!
Down with the imperialist-backed junta!