The last several years in U.S.-Russia relations have witnessed a plethora of destabilizing actions on both sides, ranging from bloody skirmishes in proxy wars to the collapse of bedrock arms control treaties, and from the conduct of massive military exercises to allegations of widespread cyber-attack. For those who thought the relationship could not get any worse, there is the new Kerch Strait Crisis, which has moved the proverbial “doomsday clock” that much closer to midnight.
Among nuclear-armed powers, a direct clash of arms might be unlikely, but the “stability-instability” paradox also dictates that lower-level machinations are quite conceivable. In those circumstances, victory will most often go to the side with the stronger conventional forces and also the greater will. The result of the Kerch incident, therefore, was a foregone a conclusion for those familiar with the ongoing Russian military buildup in the Black Sea area that has included a slew of new submarines and frigates, not to mention coastal missile systems and even hypersonic anti-ship weaponry. Can anyone doubt Moscow’s will after the Kremlin devoted such resources to the new Crimean Bridge? Others may wish to review the history of the region, which features in its lore the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” among many other examples of Moscow’s steely determination, and how adversaries have often underestimated that determination.
Ukraine’s many defenders suggest that Russia’s Crimean Bridge is just a grand symbol of aggression and, moreover, that all waters surrounding Crimea are contested by Kiev. These hawks maintain that the twelve-mile limits around the peninsula (and in the vicinity of the Kerch Strait) have no legal standing. Perhaps they will not be too upset when the Mexican Navy starts patrolling the coasts of California, noting that even perhaps our greatest President Abraham Lincoln considered the seizure of that splendid territory from Mexico in 1846 (along with five other states) to have also been an act of aggression. According to the same source, Ulysses Grant, who fought in that war, described the Mexican War in his memoirs as “the most unjust war ever waged against a weaker nation by a stronger.” But what are the musings of mere historians against the radiant “Western liberal order?”
If the fate of the Sea of Azov is not likely to be settled by lawyers or by historians, what about pragmatic mariners? Even the most reactionary ideologues must recognize that large bridges across narrow waterways may present navigational and security hazards. Thus, it is reasonable for Russian authorities to enact strict rules, including advanced notice requirements and the mandatory use of pilots to manage traffic through this strait. In fact, given that all sides agree that the Kerch Crisis started in the early morning, persisted throughout the day and then ended in a spate of gunfire after sundown on 25 November, it seems that the most obvious explanation for this episode is not really premeditated provocation, so much as a strident disagreement about navigational rules. That Russia has been impolite and heavy-handed in “teaching” its navigational rules is self-evident and rather to be expected at this point from the grumpy bear. But it is neither just cause for Cold War antics, and it’s hardly a solid rationale for sparking a military showdown among nuclear powers.
Yet, a showdown we have and Moscow is surely now busy preparing its counter-responses to a series of U.S. and allied retaliatory measures that are already unfolding. Indeed, a survey appearing under the headline “The Pentagon is Approaching Russia’s Maritime Frontiers [Пентагон приближается к морским границам России]” was published in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta during the first week of December and tabulated various American military moves in response to the Kerch Strait Crisis. The article begins by suggesting that the U.S. Navy is preparing to send a detachment of ships into the Black Sea and that one cannot rule out that they will be deployed to defend the sea approaches into the Sea of Azov. A Russian flag officer is quoted as commenting: “The US supports Kiev that Crimea is part of Ukraine, and that the entrance to the Sea of Azov, in their opinion, is not connected to the territorial waters of the Russian Federation [США поддерживают Киев в том, что Крым – часть Украины, а вход в Азовское море, по их мнению, не связан с территориальными водами РФ].” Lieutenant-General Yuri Netkachev [Юрий Неткачев] is quoted and predicts, “The situation from the US side will continue to escalate [ситуация со стороны США будет и дальше нагнетаться]…” in order that Washington can show the whole world that the Kerch Strait is fully open to navigation.
This Russian General notes that the United States has already “tried working in the Far East [попытались отработать на Дальнем Востоке].” He is referring to a Freedom of Navigation operation undertaken by the USS McCampbell on about December 5 into Peter the Great Bay near Vladivostok. Regrettably, that operation was not sufficiently newsworthy for either the New York Times or the Washington Post. General Netkachev dismissed the approach of the McCampbell as “clearly political in nature [носит явно политический характер].” According to this article, Russian Defense Ministry representative Igor Konashenkov [Игорь Конашенков] said that the U.S. warship was never closer than 100 km to Russian shores and was tracked during this sortie into Russia’s proximate waters by the Russian Pacific Fleet ASW ship Admiral Tributz. It is noted that McCampbell’s mission was labeled as a “provocation” in the Duma, but Konashenkov seemed completely unperturbed, describing the American ship’s movements as a “routine transit from the area close to the territory of North Korea into the central area of the Japan Sea and now is located at a distance 400 km from Russian territorial waters [рутинный переход из района вблизи территориальных вод Северной Кореи в центральную часть Японского моря и сейчас находится на удалении более 400 км от территориальных вод РФ].”
Yet if one is satisfied that we are not witnessing “horizontal escalation” from the Black Sea to the Far East, all is not quiet on the “Western Front.” This report notes that American drones “are flying practically every day along the borders of the Russian Federation [почти ежедневно патрулируют вдоль границ с РФ].” It discusses spy flights in the vicinity of the Kerch Strait and Krasnodar Krai, as well as a U.S. Air Force plane that flew a reconnaissance mission out of a Ukrainian airfield [Борисполь] and is said to have flown the first mission of this type along the northern border of the Crimea, approaching the sensitive point of Perekop, and coming as close as 10 km from the Russian border. Meanwhile, an American AWACS plane was reported in this Russian article to be active in the close proximity to the border of Kaliningrad. It is further speculated in the piece that “The US will prepare a ‘surprise’ [Готовят США ‘сюрприз’] near to Kaliningrad and this might amount to a new US military base in Poland, just 120km from the Latvian border.”
This is all music to the ears of the many advocates for the new Cold War. Undoubtedly, increasing tensions will benefit the military-industrial complex and more than a few promotions and new sinecures may result from this new flare-up, both in the U.S. military and likely in the Russian military too. That will constitute synergistic flourishing of a putrid variety.
Washington’s multitude of Russia hawks are girding for a major showdown in the Ukraine/Black Sea region. Stepping back, however, might allow for some greater perspective on the nature of the “crisis” that has just past. The Sea of Azov is, upon closer examination, not the South China Sea. If Moscow wanted it so, there is little doubt those three Ukrainian boats would be on the bottom of the Black Sea and the sailors would be gone forever rather than temporarily detained. Russia actually opted for restraint (albeit with a heavy hand) in a complex situation.
Likewise, if Moscow wanted to close the Sea of Azov or even completely destroy the Ukrainian Navy, these missions would hardly be operationally challenging for Russia’s formidable Black Sea Fleet. Military analysts realize that Moscow could long ago have seized eastern Ukraine, built a new border fence and handed out Russian passports, but the Bear has elected not to. If sufficiently angry, Russia could gobble the rest of Ukraine up too—though that would likely require extreme violence. But if the Kremlin was bent on genuine trouble-making, it could resort to the building up of intermediate-range nuclear weapons “like sausages” to target Western Europe (again), flagrantly violate weapons sanctions on North Korea and Iran, or even supply vast quantities of weaponry to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
None of the above steps have yet been taken, but our leaders are indeed playing with fire at a most delicate moment for European security. By contrast, the right and responsible solution to tensions in the Sea of Azov is to stop grandstanding and instead employ patient and quiet diplomacy to test the willingness of both Kiev and Moscow to engage in substantive dialogue regarding safe transit in the Kerch Strait that safeguards both countries’ genuine interests in that waterway.