There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.
From the start, I was a little reluctant to get drawn into the Kerch Strait fiasco, because I was convinced from the outset that it would not amount to anything despite the western cries of a major naval battle in the Kerch Strait between Russia and Ukraine. Knowing as we do that any incident in which Russia reacts in any way to Ukraine’s increasingly-ridiculous behaviour is going to get inflated until it looks like Guernica come to life, I was confident it would be the proverbial tempest in a teapot. Ukraine’s biggest surface combatant is the frigate “Hetman Sahaydachniy”, a 3,500-ton patrol ship built in the early 90’s at – ironically – the Kerch shipyard. That’s the flagship, and there’s only one of her type. There is a corvette, which is used as a training vessel, a small missile boat, and 6 Gurza-class gunboats, two of which are now interned in Kerch following the “Battle of Kerch Strait”.
You might snicker at ‘the fleet’, but a moment’s thought will cause you to realize that Ukraine is no longer much of a maritime nation.
This graphic (from Euractiv) displays the territorial limits within the Black Sea now controlled by Russia and those by Ukraine, since Crimea petitioned the Russian Federation for membership and it was granted. You can squirm around that fact all you like, but it only becomes more apparent that the west is ecstatic about freedom and self-determination just so long as it results in an enemy or a non-aligned country losing territory. The very minute such a rush of independence results in a strategic black eye for the western alliance, that’s the minute that a country’s leader is entitled to use whatever means and force he/she deems necessary to keep recalcitrant provinces under national control. Let anyone who is not on the western list of Approved Despots try anything like that, and an immediate outcry will ensue that he is ‘killing his own people’, and an urgent western intervention is required to ensure the equitable breakup of the country along ethnic lines, consistent with the finest traditions of freedom and democracy. Smaller pieces are often easier to boss around, unless you prefer the term ‘manage’. See how it works?
Be that as it may, you can see that while Ukraine still has access to the Sea of Azov, since it still has coastline which fronts upon it, it cannot get out of it without passing through the Russian-controlled Kerch Strait. That’s most inconvenient for it, since its other bit of seacoast, at Odessa, lies on the other side of the Kerch Strait. Similarly, the port of Mariupol, which is fairly busy commercially – there is an American-flagged merchant vessel there now at time of writing, and nearly half the ships in port are foreign-flagged – cannot be reached by sea without passing through the Kerch Strait. To be frank, Ukraine’s claim to decision-making on the Kerch Strait was always shaky; the Crimean Peninsula was gifted to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev, in a move that was probably not even legal – considering it was a resolution adopted by the Presidium and was not considered or approved by the Politburo – and the demographics of Crimea at the time were overwhelmingly Russian-dominated, about 75%. Analysts suggest Khrushchev’s motive for his gift was to codify Soviet control over Ukraine, to fortify and perpetuate a subordinate relationship…and to add some 860,000 Russians to the already-large Russian minority in Ukraine. Seen in that light, it makes you wonder why Ukraine is making such a fuss over losing Crimea; it simply went back to its historic roots, and it removes a bunch of ethnic Russians – whom the Ukrainian nationalists hate with a passion – from Ukrainian territory. What’s not to like?
The other side of the strait was always Russian for as far back as living memory goes, and forms the Taman Peninsula in Krasnodar. Now both sides of the strait are Russian territory; I don’t see what’s so hard to understand about that. Is it reasonable that both land boundaries of the strait are wholly Russian, but half the water in the middle is Ukrainian, to be used at Ukraine’s pleasure?
The practices consolidated in the 2003 agreement which seems to have taken on tremendous significance to would-be sea lawyers specified shared access to the Sea of Azov. However, a couple of codicils – one, the agreement was struck when Crimea was still a part of Ukraine, and it no longer is. Two, Ukraine claims that Russia is invading it, and is its most hated enemy, one with which war is never more than a heartbeat away. Why would Russia allow a sworn enemy unrestricted access to its territorial waters – show me another nation that does. Three, the Kerch Strait Bridge did not exist in 2003; it now forms a vital land link to Crimea, for the transfer of commercial goods that it was Ukraine’s pleasure to exercise a veto over when no such link was available, blocking shipments of food into Crimea, shutting off its water and its electricity in an obvious attempt to coerce the civilian population into submission. Four, American activists with a clinical meddling dependency continue to encourage Ukraine to attack and destroy the bridge, restoring Crimea’s dependence on a a hostile Ukraine which has already demonstrated its willingness to starve the population into compliance. Five, the agreement did not ever specify free right of passage without advising the relevant Vessel Traffic Management authority of the vessel’s intent to transit, together with the customary advisory information such as vessel name, port of registry, cargo, destination, last port of call and crew complement. This amounts to a customs declaration in the case of countries which do not share a customs-union relationship with the Russian Federation. Which Ukraine, by its own vehement rejection, does not. Is it illegal to cross into another country without making a customs declaration? Try it, and find out. Now go and put on a military uniform, and try again. Was that the magic solution?
Ukraine’s story, as usual, is evolving as facts emerge. The Ukrainian navy initially claimed it had advised Russia that its ships intended to transit the Kerch Strait, and then those Russians just pounced on them for no reason when they were minding their own business.
“However, the Ukrainian navy claimed the Russians were advised that the ships were taking that route and denied they acted aggressively. Moreover, Kiev said no violation of Russian territorial sovereignty took place because they still consider Crimea to be part of Ukraine.”
So the action was promptly labeled – also as usual – as ‘unprovoked aggression by Russia’.
Let me ask you this – what do you suppose would be the American reaction to the unannounced visit of a trio of Russian navy ships to Anchorage, Alaska, using the premise that they considered Alaska to still be part of Russia? Of course they could not do that, because the United States says it bought Alaska fair and square, and it says so in American law. But America refuses to recognize Russian law which says Crimea petitioned the Russian Federation for membership, and was accepted. So there’s the basic difference; Crimea is still part of Ukraine because the United States and its posse insist that it is until they say differently. And Ukraine is apparently good with that arrangement.
Anyway, Ukraine later abandoned that argument, and reverted to “We tried to call first, but there was nobody home”. The new story was that the ships had tried to contact VTM services, but did not get a response. They were only ‘finally’ able to raise the traffic regulator at what Russia claims was “the last minute”, pointing out the rules state that 48 hours advance notice is required for transit through the strait, and that two Ukrainian warships were allowed to pass unchallenged on September 23rd, because they had followed the rules.
Russia maintains that under new rules put in place in 2015, any vessel transiting the strait must seek permission 48 hours in advance. Russia claims that two Ukrainian warships that passed through the strait on Sept. 23 had followed those rules.
This time, according to the Russian account promulgated by the Federal Security Service, three Ukrainian ships on the Black Sea side of the strait sent word only at the last minute that they planned to transit.
Where else is ignorance of rules that have been in place for three years an excuse for ignoring them? A purely rhetorical question, since Ukraine is clearly aware of the requirement; it has strictly observed it up to this point. But it has chafed repeatedly at the restrictions imposed upon it, and appears not in any way to blame itself for welcoming a US State-Department-managed coup which cost it Crimea in the first place. Ukraine apparently believes it can shout every day that a state of war exists between itself and Russia, hold demonstrations where activists chant “Moskali to the knife!!” or “Moskali to the gallows”, but still argue that Crimea – overwhelmingly Russian – had no reason to seek independence from Ukraine, and that the two nations should still regard one another as brothers when it comes to Ukrainian maritime commerce. I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing a little bit of a disconnect there.
So the Ukrainian navy suddenly decided to send three vessels through the straits without observing the legal requirement to check in 48 hours in advance, declaring that Ukraine no longer recognizes those bullshit rules because Crimea is Ukraine. I wonder what could have brought about this escalation?
Gee; do you think it might have been the meeting in Washington on November 16th, between Ukraine’s Pavlo Munchkin and the USA’s former CIA Director and current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo? You know, the one which resulted in a joint statement entitled “Joint Statement on U.S. – Ukraine Strategic Partnership”? Your attention is drawn to the section labeled “Security and Countering Russian Aggression”, where you will find,
The United States condemned Russia’s aggressive actions against international shipping transiting the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait to Ukrainian ports. Both sides underscored that Russia’s aggressive activities in the Sea of Azov have brought new security, economic, social, and environmental threats to the entire Azov-Black Sea region.
And only 9 days later, Ukraine sends a naval group through the Kerch Strait, right underneath the Kerch Strait bridge American media has encouraged it to blow up, with counterintelligence operatives of the SBU onboard, without requesting transit in advance according to rules it is well aware of, and refuses to stop when ordered to do so by units of the Russian Federation Border Service until measures to make them stop actually escalate to an exchange of gunfire. Coincidence? I suppose it could be.
While we’re on that subject – supposing Russia were to back away in the face of Ukraine’s constant threats and posturing, and agree to actually disassemble the bridge across Kerch Strait, and let whoever in the hell wished to transit the waterway do so without paying any attention who they are or where they’re going. What route would they follow? Precisely the one they do now, directly under where the bridge now stands. Why? Because 80% of the Kerch Strait is less than a meter in depth. There is a channel, which must be dug out again twice a year of silt subsidence, which is all that allows merchant shipping to pass through it. For so long as merchant shipping traffic has passed through the Kerch Strait, that’s the way it has been. Ukraine – and Washington, with its hand up the back of its shirt, moving its big mouth – squawks about how new inspections are holding up shipping and bringing economic ruin. How long do the inspections take? Generally not longer than three hours. How long do you have to wait to transit the Panama Canal? Days.
Naturally, the west has lined up on the side of Ukraine, as it has uncritically done since the American-engineered coup to split it away from Russia – including countries like the UK, defending a belligerent Ukraine’s right to free passage through a Russian-controlled waterway while it gnashes its teeth with rage whenever Russian aircraft in international airspace come anywhere near the UK. Keep in mind, all you would-be pilots: everybody in international airspace near the UK must contact British air-traffic control, even if you have no intention of entering the UK’s airspace – failing to do so makes you a hazard to all other aviation.
Curiously, my whole motivation for doing this piece was as a response to Mary Dejevsky’s piece in The Independent; “Something has to Change with Russia and Ukraine“. And I didn’t even mention it. It’s Mary’s take on the Kerch Strait incident, as well as some related issues. It seemed to anger several readers here, and prompt cries that Ms. Dejevsky is only trotted out when sources like The Independent want to pretend to impartiality, so she’s allowed to do her little Russia-is-not-all-bad bit to showcase how fair the western press is, just so long as she stipulates that Putin usually is a wretch, or otherwise qualifies her statements. For the record, Ms. Dejevsky is often the sole dissenting western voice on Russia-related matters such as the unprecedented and panicky campaign to prevent Alexander Prokopchuk from being elected Director of Interpol. I rarely agree with everything she says, but I usually agree with a lot of it.
So I’ll leave you to read her Kerch Strait piece yourself, see what you think. But in this instance, I was inspired to write about it – which, as you can see, I didn’t – because I disagreed with a couple of the premises she introduced. One, she suggests the entire incident was quite possibly a miscommunication, with the Ukrainians unable to raise a response from Vessel Traffic Management. This is highly unlikely, since its radio equipment is top-notch among maritime communications, capable of multi-channel monitoring, and the Black Sea is not a notorious area for communication anomalies. The Ukrainian units concerned are warships, with – supposedly – communication equipment available to them that is far superior to the typical fit for run-down merchantmen. But all that aside, what is the procedure when you need permission to pass a checkpoint, and can’t raise anyone on the radio? Just assume consent, and plow ahead? How about you try that at the US border, and see what happens.
According to the US Third Fleet’s Commanding Officer, Vice-Admiral John Alexander, it’s pretty important to follow the rules. You kind of have to, if you are the only civilized nation which has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). He was speaking as a panelist on a discussion of ‘grey zone operations’ at the WEST 18 Conference. The topic of discussion was China, and its construction of islands in the South China Sea to expand its claim to regional waters. VAdm. Alexander asserts the USA is ‘more right’ in its actions, because it follows the rules.
Just as a discussion point, the South China Sea is about 9000 miles from Washington, which asserts its right to decision-making in the region.
Another bone of contention I have with Mary’s piece is her speculation that Russia constructed the Kerch Strait bridge with blocking the navigable channel in mind. This is demonstrably not so, and were it the case, Russia would have constructed the bridge in such a way that the center section was too low to allow ships through. The center section coincides with the deep-water channel, and the rest of the strait is simply too shallow for ships of any size to pass, unless Ukraine was disposed to dig out the whole thing and maintain it through biannual dredging. I am sure I am not the only one to have seen no sign of any such intention.
Finally, I dispute her assertion that Moscow recognizes that it has ‘lost’ Ukraine. That’s a very shortsighted view, if you’ll forgive my saying so, and I will make my customary wager – a case of beer – that Russia will eventually (say, within 15 years) end up with a far closer association with the remainder of Ukraine than the European Union enjoys, if Ms. Dejevsky cares to accept it. If I were in charge of Russia, I would give western Ukraine to Poland, because the nationalist nutjobs are always going to be a problem. Russia remains by far the biggest investor in Ukraine, and European investors are conspicuously disinterested in sinking their money into the oligarchical cesspool that still sees well over half of Ukraine’s GDP under the direct (if occasionally somewhat circumspect) control of its 50 richest citizens, and most of it controlled by the top 10. This is despite Poroshenko’s regular bleating that Ukraine is a great place to make money, and his entreaties that his western friends put their money where their mouths are. When Ukraine loses its status as a transit state for Russian gas going to Europe, it will lose most of its leverage with the west, and that is just a fact – if that were coordinated with a pullout of all Russian investment in Ukraine, the latter would collapse overnight. What I believe is a far more likely eventuality is an association between central/eastern Ukraine and Russia which is more or less similar to the pre-Maidan state, with regular commerce between the two and possibly a return to customs exemption for Ukraine. Western Ukraine will have to go, or a future Ukrainian administration will have to purge it with sufficient zeal that the Bandera worshipers go underground once again.
Russia is dealing with this latest provocation by Ukraine as purely a criminal matter, not an act of war. Ukraine violated the rules by not informing VTM at Kerch Strait of its intent for the naval mission to transit at least 48 hours in advance of the passage; it is important to stress here that had they done so, there is every reason to believe – based on previous performance – that they would have been allowed to go on their way, assuming there was nothing about the presence of the SBU on board to arouse Russian suspicions. Instead, Ukraine chose to press on despite repeated radio calls to stop, firing of flares that warn of impending physical measures if the unit does not do as ordered, and finally gunfire to force the units to stop. The ships are now interned at Kerch, and the sailors detained in Russia except for those who are hospitalized for medical attention. It looks as if the Ukrainian sailors will be spending Christmas in Russia. If I were them, I’d be pretty happy about that, considering the alternative. Russian jails are probably heated.