Sometimes, to understand the present we must better understand the past. It was the Victorian statesman and British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston who best summed up Russia’s behavior during the Crimean War in 1855.
“The policy and practice of the Russian government has always been to push forward its encroachments as fast and as far as the apathy or want of firmness of other governments would allow it to go, but always to stop and retire when it met with decided resistance and then to wait for the next favorable opportunity,” he said.
Some things never change. On Nov. 24, three Ukrainian navy ships were traveling from one Ukrainian port to another. During their journey, they were intercepted by Russian patrol boats near the Kerch Strait. One Ukrainian ship was rammed and others were shot at. Six Ukrainian sailors were wounded; all 24 are now in Russian custody.
The location of this latest incident was no coincidence. The Kerch Strait is a narrow body of water between Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea, which the vast majority of the international community considers to be part of Ukraine. The strait links the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov, and according to a 2003 agreement between Russia and Ukraine, both countries have equal right of passage.
Those who follow events in Ukraine know that the strait has been a potential hotspot for some time. In May, Russia completed construction of a controversial bridge connecting Crimea with the Russian mainland. The bridge was controversial in Russia because of its high price tag of almost $4 billion, at a time when the economy is struggling.
Putin will do as much as he knows he can get away with until someone pushes back.
The bridge is controversial in Ukraine because it limits the height of ships now able to safely transit the strait. Large Panamax ships, which as recently as 2016 accounted for almost a quarter of all ships passing through the strait, are now too tall.
In addition to the physical restrictions placed by the bridge, Russia has also been harassing, delaying, and in some cases stopping Ukrainian commercial shipping from using the strait. This is starting to take its toll on the Ukrainian economy. For example, the shipping of steel and iron products through the strait alone accounts for 25 percent of Ukraine’s export revenue. A country already at war, Ukraine cannot afford another economic disruption.
If the location of the confrontation was no coincidence, neither was the timing. Recent developments between the West and Ukraine, combined with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s shaky approval ratings, mean that an incident such as the recent one in the strait was inevitable. In September, the US Coast Guard signed an agreement providing two patrol boats to Ukraine within the next year, angering many in Russia.
A few weeks ago, the UK said it was increasing the number of troops it has in Ukraine to train the military there. The Russian Embassy in London promptly released a statement calling this a “matter of deep concern.” Also, Ukraine’s Parliament recently held its first reading of new constitutional amendments providing for the country’s future membership in the EU and NATO.
On top of this, Putin’s approval ratings are at their lowest since 2012. It is likely that in order to increase his popularity, he ordered some sort of aggressive military action. This approach has worked before. In 2013, Putin’s approval ratings stood at 54 percent; when Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, they jumped to 83 percent.
Ever since Russia occupied Crimea and started a separatist movement in the east of the country, Ukraine has been locked in a struggle for national survival. This latest incident in the Kerch Strait is merely an extension of a war that has been ongoing for almost five years now, and that has cost the lives of more than 10,000 people.
If Russia’s aggression has done anything though, it has solidified support among Ukrainians to link the country’s destiny closely with Europe, not with Moscow. Today, Ukraine represents the idea in Europe that each country has the sovereign ability to determine its own path, with whom it has relations, and how and by whom it is governed.
This is why US President Donald Trump was right to cancel his planned meeting with Putin at the G20 Summit. In addition to canceling the meeting, Trump should use the international spotlight afforded to the G20 as an opportunity to demand the release of the Ukrainian prisoners.
Russia’s latest act of aggression in the Kerch Strait is yet another example of Putin’s imperial mindset. And it is another reminder that he will do as much as he knows he can get away with until someone pushes back.
• Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation.