Why are Russian forces attacking Ukraine in the Sea of Azov?

The political trap was intended to polarise Ukrainian society around the best ways to handle Russian aggression. 

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The Azov Sea has coastlines on Ukraine, Russia and Ukrainian-but-Russian-occupied Crimea, the latter of which it is divided from the Black Sea by. Last weekend, Russian military forces fired on and captured three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Azov’s “free navigation” waters.

This was a pre-planned attack with three separate objectives. First, military consolidation in the wider Black Sea. Second, to send a strong signal to the international community of Russia’s dominance in the waters surrounding Crimea. Third, to further disturb Ukraine’s domestic political waters prior to its elections next year.

This military flare-up is important. For five years now, Russia has denied any involvement, claiming it was either “local rebels” or Russian citizen “volunteers” in unmarked uniforms helping their Ukrainian “brothers”. Now, for the first time since the Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilisation through conflict in the east of Ukraine, the Russian leadership has openly acknowledged its own involvement in violent action. 

This escalation is a direct consequence of the annexation in 2014. Despite almost unanimous international non-recognition of Crimea as Russian territory, Russia treats waters surrounding the peninsula and the Kerch Strait, the 3km-wide passage between the Azov and the Black Sea, as its own territorial waters. It has built a 15km bridge to connect mainland Russia to Crimea and is now asserting its military supremacy. 

In the waters of the Azov – the sea that that lies between Ukraine and Russia, and is divided from the Black Sea by Crimea – Russia aims to prevent Ukraine from strengthening its defensive position. Securing the unilateral right to “no passage” in the Kerch Strait would put Russia in full control and turn the Azov Sea into a de facto Russian internal lake. Russia’s militarisation of Azov and parts of the Black Sea creates new threat for wider European security.

Russia’s wider strategy is to prevent the Ukrainian state from delivering security, economic prosperity and closer integration with the EU and NATO for its citizens. Keeping it in a “grey zone” or even a buffer between Russia and the EU suits the Kremlin’s objectives.

So far these efforts are failing and led to the opposite results. Ukrainians are in more agreement with each other than ever about their Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Russia has failed to create a puppet state of “Novorossia” incorporating south-eastern Ukraine. It is losing its religious domination with the recent separation of Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches.

Russia is also losing a whole host of legal cases that Ukraine has filed. Most recently, an international arbitration court in Paris ruled that Russia must compensate the Ukrainian state bank, Oschadbank, $1.3bn for the loss of its Crimean assets.

Putin is sabre rattling. He is aiming at economic and political targets. Disrupted routes through the Kertch Strait are undermining the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk. They are important hubs for grain and metals exports, primarily to the EU and Northern Africa. This will have negative economic impact on almost 1.4m Ukrainians living in coastal communities on the Azov Sea. On the day of the Azov incident, Ukrainian Eurobonds and publically traded stocks tumbled, and local currencies weakened.

It is important to remember that the battlefield in this confrontation is as much in Kyiv as it is in the Sea of Azov. Russia is attempting to undermine President Poroshenko in his desperate attempt to be re-elected in 2019. Poroshenko’s approval rating is in single digits and his opponents accuse him of an ineffective response to Russian aggression. To demonstrate resolve and mobilise in the event of further Russian aggression, parliament approved Poroshenko’s request for the martial law. It will apply to the ten regions bordering Russia and Transnistria and last until 26 of December 2018.

The political trap was to further polarise Ukrainian society around the best ways to handle Russian aggression. Public opinion is divided about whether martial law is a politically and militarily expedient move. Some believe the president is looking for a way to get an upper hand in the March 2019 elections.

Indeed, martial law it is a double-edged sword. It could help the President and the armed forces to deliver a more effective response to Russia’s continued encroachment and multiple threats. But it could undermine confidence in the capabilities of Ukrainian Armed Forces and their commander-in-chief in defending the homeland. Voters will evaluate President Poroshenko on his response on this – and it could go either way.

Orysia Lutsevych is a research fellow in the Russia & Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.