A useful objective analysis of recent events in the Kerch Strait, which assesses the legal background and future conflict scenarios.
By Endre Szenasi
Published on Academia, Dec 8 2018
This analysis does not represent neither Western, nor Ukrainian or Russian official views concerning the Kerch Strait incident, its legal background, or future conflict scenarios. It is an expert analysis that concentrates on realities. It is not the aim of the analysis to come up with“politically correct” views.
Three Ukrainian navy ships – two artillery gunboats and one tugboat – violated Russian territorial waters several times, failed to ask for Russian permission to cross the narrow segment of the Kerch Strait Bridge suitable for sea navigation purposes. They ignored various types of warnings from radio calls to warning shots and attempted to push their way through to reach their destination port of the Sea of Azov on 25 November 2018. As a result, three Ukrainian sailors were injured, all the sailors were detained and the ships were confiscated by the Russian Armed Forces. The injured sailors got immediate Russian medical attention.
Ukraine ordered its Armed Forces to implement full combat readiness, declared war status in ten bordering regions, but Russia did not implement equivalent or similar steps, firmly believing that they were unnecessary. A widespread hysteria started in Ukraine and the West, accusingRussia of a “military aggression” and the “blockade” of the Kerch Strait, ultimately the Sea of Azov.
I made some judgements in my first analysis of the Kerch Straight incident concerning probable future events, suggesting that there would be no major war between Ukraine and Russia, and new Ukrainian provocations cannot be excluded. I also suggested that there would be no further Ukrainian territorial losses.
Before getting into the analysis of future conflict scenarios, it has to be made clear, that the immediate outcome of the Kerch Strait incident could have been much worse. In fact, it could have been disastrous for the Ukrainian sailors and the navy ships. We need to keep in mind, that historically the Russian military culture has no much regard for human lives. In some casesit could be called “heroism”, in other cases enormous amounts of casualties were accepted as “normal”. This is truly a “bad omen” for Ukraine, a country that has a long common history with czarist and Soviet Russia.
One can expect that the Ukrainian leadership must be aware of the nature of Russian military culture when irresponsibly endangering the lives of their sailors, but the more I analyse actions of the Ukrainian leadership since the violent takeover of power during the “Maidan-revolution”, the more I’m convinced of the suicidal nature of Ukrainian attempts when handling the militaryconflicts with Russia.
We can argue whether the Russian military tradition – mostly ignoring casualty rates – still prevails, or not. Even if there is a significant positive change, that does not provide an excuse for Kiev for deliberately creating a situation when it is highly unlikely that the Ukrainian navy ships could pass the Kerch Strait without being stopped in dangerous conditions, threatening the lives of the sailors.
No matter whether we like the current Russian leadership or not, the immediate outcome of the Kerch Strait incident is carefully measured and moderate, keeping in mind that the Ukrainian sailors survived and only three of them sustained moderate injuries. We need to keep in mind that it is not an easy task to stop and disarm foreign navy ships once they have orders to ignore warnings, if the requirement is to perform it keeping sailors unharmed. Even though it is aroutine task of any coast guard to keep the sailors unharmed in incidents involving civilianships, it a rare and exceptional practice to do so with armed navy ships of a foreign state, following orders to ignore warnings.
1. Probable (likely) future conflict scenarios
1.1 No more direct confrontation between Ukrainian and Russian Armed Forces
This scenario is highly likely, assuming, that there would be business as usual at the Ukrainian Eastern front. There would be no new conflicts, similar to the Kerch Strait incident and Ukraine will not come up with new provocations. Russia would be happy with the declining hysteria in reference to the Kerch Strait incident, hoping to avoid the installation of new, serious Western economic sanctions against Russia. The miserable status of NATO-Russia relations will mostly remain unchanged.
1.2 New Ukrainian provocations of limited nature
New Ukrainian provocations are hard to predict. However, there is a clear Ukrainian and Western desire to demonstrate the “illegal” nature of Russian policies toward Ukraine, whenthe interest of the international community has already begun to fade, prior to the Kerch Strait incident. A new provocation or several new provocations of limited nature could change this lack of interest.
As we can see, Ukraine and the West dramatize Kerch Strait incident, blaming solely Russia and totally ignoring all the Russian security concerns and claims. A continuation of this policy is highly likely, even if no new Ukrainian provocations might take place before the month of the declared Ukrainian war status expires.
The Russian political leadership must have been warned by the Kerch Strait incident, and is likely to be mentally well prepared for new Ukrainian provocations of limited nature. The Russian leadership will likely attempt to minimise the consequences of the provocation while trying not to allow Ukraine to get away with it unpunished. Moscow would also attempt not to create permanent territorial changes for the expense of Ukraine.
1.3 New episode in the Eastern-Ukrainian front
The most likely place where Ukrainian provocations might take place is the Eastern Front. Given the fact, that Ukraine has Western mentors, primarily the US, a chemical weapons incident could possibly happen; an incident that could be beyond the “red line”, a Western expression of something unacceptable that will result in policy changes and actions. It is most likely, that all actors, the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the separatist and Moscow would deny their involvement in the possible chemical accident, similarly to what happened in Syria or during the Scripal case in the UK.
Ukraine could start limited offensive operations at the Eastern front of Ukraine, which would be routinely repelled by Russian aided separatist. The more Ukrainian power is involved in offensive military operations, the more Russian military aid the separatist forces would get to repel Ukrainian attacks. If the West provides a significant military aid to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, mirror aid would be provided by Russia to separatist forces. More Russian volunteers might also join the separatist forces.
2. Unlikely conflict scenarios
2.1 Major war between Ukraine and Russia at the Ukrainian Eastern front
Some Western, Ukrainian and Russian analysts suggest that there is a possibility of a new, major war in Eastern Ukraine. However, this scenario is unlikely, since:
- (a) The status quo in Eastern Ukraine satisfies Russia that supports separatists, but does not want to go further with land grabs for the expense of Ukraine. It would not strengthen the Russian grip on Ukraine (as a territorial conflict preventing Ukraine from joining NATO) but it would severely rise the direct (casualties, unpopularity, reconstruction etc.) and indirect (new Western sanctions etc.) costs of the conflict for the expense of Russia.
- (b) Ukraine has learned the hard way that they cannot win a war against the separatists, backed by Russia in the Eastern front. Ukraine suffered a serious amount of casualtiesand we still don’t know their precise numbers. Ukraine has also suffered significant losses in terms of military equipment, that I doubt Kiev could reproduce in the coming five to ten years.The Ukrainian government admits smaller numbers of military casualties, than the real figures, since they want to save face and do not want to pay too much compensation to the families of the lost soldiers. The Ukrainian leadership rather claims false reasons of their soldiers’ “disappearance” without traces, “desertion” (blaming individual soldiers), “treason” when “siding with separatists” (also putting the blame on individual soldiers). Ukraine even uses mobile crematories in the Eastern front to destroy all the DNA that might allow a future identification of dead troops.
The West comes up with smaller numbers of Ukrainian casualties, than the reality to keep the credibility of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, ultimately the Ukrainian State. Russia is officially not involved in the conflict at all; therefore, Russia does not provide official numbers.
The figures of the UN are lagging behind the truth, due to many reasons, including difficulties of accessing places, where the fighting occurred etc. Last – but not least –no matter what “official” numbers the Russian-backed separatist, self-declared, “quasi- states” might provide, they are not credible in the eyes of the international community, since they are viewed as illegal formations.
2.2 Russian “land grab” allowing ground connection between Russia and Crimea
This scenario is a nonsense, not deserving much time for analysis, even though the Ukrainian leadership explicitly expressed the fear of this scenario. Russia has spent a lot of money to build the Kerch Strait Bridge that serves essentially the same purpose as the missing land connection between Russia and Crimea. The construction of a bridge with the known (huge) dimensions also suggests that it is a result of long term planning on the Russian side.
Opening up a land corridor to connect Russia with Crimea would not provide any serious advantages to Russia. Probably the only exception would be the blockade of Ukraine from the Sea of Azov that is an unnecessary part of the status quo that already suits Moscow.
This scenario was seriously considered to be possible by Western and Ukrainian analysts priorto the construction of the Kerch Strait Bridge.
2.3 Russian attack from Transnistria to gain Ukrainian land
This scenario is the most unlikely nonsense, since Russia does neither have the military power in Transnistria, nor the political will to perform offensive military operations in order to gain land. The Russian Forces in Transnistria do not have the slightest hope of successful offensive operations against the far superior Ukrainian Armed Forces (in numbers and equipment,without even mentioning the support potential from entire Ukraine). The “handful” of Russianpeacekeepers in Transnistria are equipped with small arms and light weapons making them unfit for serious offensive operations to gain land. They are not even capable to defend Transnistria, should Moldova or Ukraine decide to conquer its long stretching land along the Ukrainian border, having virtually no depth. From the military point of view, the Ukrainian field artillery is within the range of virtually all possible targets all along Transnistria.
The reason why this scenario is mentioned at all is that president Poroshenko declared war status in ten bordering regions, including the ones in the vicinity of Transnistria. Ukrainian full combat readiness is declared all around the country, including the border region of Transnistria.
3. The most interesting turn of events: the “Transnistria open war” scenario
This scenario possibly starts with Ukrainian “false flag” operations when there is a military attack of seemingly Russian Forces from Transnistria, hitting Ukrainian civilian or military targets, resulting in Ukrainian casualties. Once having a pretext for a resolution of the Transnistria frozen conflict Kiev would start large-scale military operations to destroy and disarm all resistance in Transnistria, offering a comprehensive crisis resolution to Moldova. It is clearly not the objective of Kiev to push through a land grab, even though Ukrainian Armed Forces might stay in Transnistria as long as necessary for the conflict resolution.
I assume Ukrainian “false flag” operations and clearly not a genuine Russian provocation, because:
- (a) The escalation of the conflict does not serve Russian interests, making new Western sanctions against Russia ever more probable.
- (b) Russia would put herself in an “uncomfortable” situation if Ukraine decides to make serious counteractions after a Russian provocation, since Russian military reinforcements can only get to the location of the armed conflict through either Ukraine or through Romania and Moldova. The possibility of a full-scale Russian attack against the NATO member Romania in order to reach Transnistrian locations can be safelyassessed as highly unlikely, virtually “impossible”.
- (c) Russia would also put herself in a strategically “uncomfortable” situation even if she does nothing else after escalating the conflict in Transnistria, since she would de factoabandon both her Armed Forces Contingent in and the Russian population inTransnistria to the “mercy” of Kiev. For those who know the nature of the Putin lead, strong Russia, the idea that Ukraine would wound, capture or kill Russian Armed Forces soldiers and gain control of the future of some 200 thousand Russian citizens, with no serious Russian response, appears to be unthinkable. It is especially improbable since it would provide a precedent that even the weak Ukraine can find and hit the “Achilles-heel” of Russia, getting away with it unpunished.
- (d) A 21th century precedent already exists in the post-Soviet region when Russian Peacekeeping Forces came under systematic Georgian artillery fire in order to kill scores of them. It was committed by then Georgian president Saakashvili’ forces, resulting in approximately 50 Russian military deaths, providing a classic casus belli for Russia to repel the Georgian military from South-Ossetia.
This Transnistrian escalation scenario is supported by the fact that Kiev put all forces in the border regions with Transnistria on full combat alert, even though the strength of Russian Forces equipped with small arms and light weapons there under no circumstances poses a risk of Russian offensive operations against the far superior Ukrainian Forces.
In this scenario, Russia would have to choose between two bad outcomes. However, these outcomes are not equally disastrous for Russia.
If Russia would do nothing, a precedent would be made a cited for the foreseeable future, that Russia is so weak that she abandoned her Armed Forces Contingent and her own citizens, losingthe conflict against even the weak Ukraine. It would also be a precedent of an “undetermined”Russia in a post-Soviet regional conflict. Unlike in case of territories outside the post-Soviet regions, where Russia accepted new geopolitical realities, such as the massive NATO expansion to the East, replacing the former Warsaw Pact (Russian allies), the post-Soviet region is considered to be a Russian sphere of interest, therefore the Russian stance concerning her interests is much tougher here, than outside.
In this scenario, the most likely Russian course of actions would be an open military intervention on a grand scale. Since many Russian peacekeepers (from Transnistria) would initially be killed, wounded and captured and Russian population in Transnistria would initially fall under Ukrainian control, when Kiev expels them or at least limits their rights, is more than enough to justify a significant Russian military intervention. Russia would be dragged into a massive, open military conflict with Ukraine. The minimum Russian requirement would be to open an air corridor (possibly: an air- and land corridor) to Transnistria that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are unable to control, or even attack.
An air corridor by itself could be enough to allow the Russian restauration of the status quo and allow the evacuation of Russian military and civilian personnel. However, the establishment of the Russian air corridor would require neutralising all Ukrainian air defences within range. As a rule of thumb that means that all Ukrainian air defences within the range of 200 kilometres (!) from the borderline of Transnistria must be destroyed and that status must be maintained until a new peace agreement is reached, or Ukraine de facto ceases any efforts to restore its military capabilities able to influence the air corridor. This means an open, big and lasting armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, where the establishment of a Russian controlled land corridor might not be necessary, but desired from the military point of view.
The political leadership in Moscow would indeed seriously consider the option of avoiding the opening of a land corridor connecting the Black Sea with Transnistria on the expense of Ukraine. Russia does not need more square kilometres, neither more occupied Ukrainian land, that must be maintained for the expense of Russia. Russia does not want to face criticism for an intervention that results in new territorial losses of Ukraine, even though Russian military control of the territory below the air corridor will inevitably have to be established, even without the presence of Russian troops on the ground.
Ukraine and Western countries would endlessly criticise Russian actions, as an “open, blatant military aggression”, ignoring legitimate Russian interests to protect their peacekeepers andcitizens in Transnistria. Russophobes would claim that Russia has orchestrated the reasons for an open military intervention in Ukraine. They would also argue that the Russian strategic goal was to seal Ukraine from land-based Western support. Russia would be criticised for“overwhelming” military strikes against a sovereign country (that is Ukraine). Moscow wouldbe blamed for abandoning her “peacekeeping role” in Transninstria, rewriting the post-WWII status quo etc.
From the Ukrainian nationalist point of view, all hysteria in the aftermath of the Kerch Strait incident, the reasons of declaring the war status and ordering full combat readiness of all theUkrainian Armed Forces would be “justified”.
Russian-Western relations within the already ongoing, but officially undeclared cold war would come to a new low. New economic sanctions and other actions against Russia would be imposed. Those who view Russia as a rival or an enemy power would be satisfied with the perfect pretext to come up with ever-tougher restrictions against Russia.
Russia on the other hand would demonstrate with the military intervention, that Kiev cannot ignore Russian interests unpunished, keeping the credibility as a great power. Russia would resist new Western sanctions without changing the course of her foreign policy concerning Ukraine. Russia cannot do otherwise without losing face and being severely humiliated. More importantly, no great power under control of own actions (unlike Germany at the end of WWI or WWII etc.) would allow destruction of their soldiers and leaving their citizens for the mercy of an unfriendly, alien state.
I have been considering this scenario for long ago, as a possibility to drag Russia into an open war with Ukraine that Russia intends to avoid, as it is done in the case of Eastern-Ukraine. The reason why this scenario has not been put in practice yet could be that:
- (a) The Russian and the Ukrainian presidents talk to each other, even if they don’t make itpublic and Russia has probably warned Ukraine against such an adventure, foreseeing credibly grave consequences regarding the Ukrainian statehood. Putin has already publicly threatened Ukraine of grave consequences effecting the entire (!) Ukrainian statehood in case if Ukraine starts a major escalation at the Eastern front. However, theprecise meaning of Putin’s threat has still not been clarified for the public, providing room for speculations.
- (b) The events associated with the Russian “annexation” of Crimea and the war in EasternUkraine could have overshadowed the “Transnistria open war” scenario. Since theCrimea- and Eastern front related events are fading from public interest, the time for a new conflict has come to maintain anti-Russian policies. An example of newly generated interest could be the Kerch Strait incident, or even a conflict at a much biggerscale: the “Transnistria open war” scenario.
We might sincerely hope that this scenario might never be put into practice (see Annexes below).
Maritime boundaries in the Sea of Azov in accordance with a normal territorial sea regime (potential contiguous zone/EEZ/continental shelf claims remain undelimited)
Simplified map of maritime claims in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. The Potential Impact of the SovereigntyDispute over Crimea on the Sea of Azov.
Map of Moldova