TONY KEVIN. The Kerch Strait gambit

A Kiev-provoked Ukraine/Russia naval clash near the Kerch Strait, Crimea, threatens to derail the Argentina G20 Summit (30 Nov -1 Dec) and to worsen US-Russia bilateral relations.  NATO allies are lining up behind a false Ukrainian narrative. The war in Eastern Ukraine could escalate now. 

First, a little essential geography. The Kerch Strait , joining the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Azov, is a narrow shallow passage , less than 24 NM wide at its narrowest point. So it all falls within Russian territorial waters, if Crimea is accepted as being now part of Russian territory: a claim firmly made by Russia since 2014, but disputed by the West.

Russia has recently completed an 18 km rail and road bridge over the Kerch Strait : a longheld Russian dream to join Crimea to southern mainland Russia. There is one navigable shipping canal at the centre of the bridge, 227 metres long , with 35 metres clearance under  the bridge, enough for large ships . The shipping canal is kept dredged deeply enough to allow large civilian ships (with tugboat assistance for navigation) to pass through to Russian and Ukrainian  ports in the Sea of Azov. Russia has declared the maritime passage under the bridge free for use by international civilian shipping.

Ukraine last week sent two small naval vessels and a naval tugboat from Odessa to attempt to traverse the strait . No Russian permission was sought or obtained. The three Ukrainian  naval vessels were intercepted by Russian naval vessels in Crimean territorial waters south of the bridge, and forced to stop. Some shots were exchanged. The tugboat was rammed in an interception manouevre between two converging Russian naval ships: it appears the tugboat captain may have deliberately  steered his vessel into the path of one of them, and suffered minor damage as a result. Russia impounded the three vessels.

Russia blocked the bridge passage temporarily with a large cargo vessel positioned athwart, directly under the bridge. It has been speculated that Russia  may have feared a Ukrainian suicide attack with vessels carrying explosives to be detonated under the bridge. In the circumstances it is remarkable that Russia conducted itself so circumspectly in the encounter, and  that there was almost no loss of life.

The maritime passage has now been reopened to civilian shipping.

The Ukrainian case  has been promptly supported  by Western governments , as reported by New York Times.  At the UN Security Council, according to NYTimes, “Russia’s attempt to use the Security Council session to blame Ukraine for the violence backfired, as ambassadors from the United States, Britain, France and others accused Russia of recklessness and violating Ukraine’s sovereignty”

This false narrative is already solidifying in Western media, including no doubt Australia.

Yet the facts are that the Ukrainian gambit was foolishly irresponsible, even suicidal. The crews are lucky their ships were not blown out of the water. Of course it would have been impossible for them to be allowed to sail unchallenged under this highly strategic and vulnerable Russian bridge, given the continuing state of war between the Kiev government  and Russian -backed opposition  forces in the nearly eastern Ukraine regions of Donetsk  and Lugansk.

Embattled Ukrainian President  Poroshenko was quick to declare martial law in the adjoining eastern government- controlled provinces. The civil war – which has involved low level hostilities in recent months – could now flare up again. The burgeoning Nazi movement in Ukraine will draw strength from these events, using them to whip up Ukrainian anti-Russian nationalism which is already  at almost hysterical level. It will not help Poroshenko’s  main rival in next year’s Ukraine presidential election, Julia Timoshenko. She will be forced to match Poroshenko’s escalating  Russophobia.

The forthcoming G20 Summit will be marred by this incident. The expected focus was to be on US-China trade tensions. G20 was to be an opportunity for other members to urge moderation by both sides and for their current trade  tensions to be addressed in a multilateral WTO context,  rather than by reciprocal sanctions and counter-sanctions.

The Kerch incident introduces a new wild card. How will it affect the  anticipated Putin-Trump bilateral in the margins of G20 ? It certainly cannot have improved the prospects for a useful conversation. Trump will be briefed by his confrontational advisers to  ‘shirtfront’ Putin over the  Kerch  incident , which the Western false narrative  is already claiming was provoked by Russia. Will Trump fall for this? Or will he have to pretend to, if he is not to face another wave of Russophobe condemnation as happened after the ill-fated Helsinki Summit  ?

In a worst case scenario, the Buenos Aires meeting could degenerate into bilateral East-West acrimony, with Russia  and China lining up together against NATO and allied G20 members, including Australia.

This was not what the G20 was intended to be. A sour and  angry meeting  in Buenos Aires will threaten to unravel the multilateral economics- focussed spirit of G20, an important forum for Australia. .

Will Australia  take a statesmanlike multilateral  position in this moment of mounting East- West tensions? The signs do not augur well.  It is hard to see Marise Payne  as a voice for moderation.

Tony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Poland and Cambodia, an Emeritus Fellow at Australian  National University, Canberra, and the author of ‘Return to Moscow’ (2017) 


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3 Responses to TONY KEVIN. The Kerch Strait gambit

  1. Ryan Junkin says:

    Of course the article starts of with”if Crimea is accepted as being now part of Russian territory: a claim firmly made by Russia since 2014, but disputed by the West” and then is written with that view point from there on, clearly pro-Russian based opinion (clearly as shown by description of the bridge), so I’ll play devils advocate.

    It could be a viewed as a “he said, she said” argument. On one side Russia’s side of the story and reasoning, the other side Ukraine’s argument. The interesting thing to note is that supporting Ukraine’s side is the vast majority of countries of the UN. Why is that? Because it is quite evident Crimea was illegally annexed (nobody actually believes the outcome of that vote, come on Russia, at least try to make-up believable numbers). Therefore the rest of the world does not view the waters in question as Russian territorial waters. And then there is the Kerch strait treaty. Does it say Ukraine has to notify Russia about passage through international waters of the Kerch strait? If so I assume Russia has been notifying Ukraine about all its passages…I bet not.

    Seem’s that Russia’s strategy is to force Ukraine to have a strategy that is to draw the rest of the world into a war with Russia to support it’s own nationalist objectives.

  2. Robin Win says:

    Another consideration in this is that there are reports of active armed activity against the Azov (Nazi) battalions of the Ukraine government, especially around Mariupol which is within one of the break away provinces, Donetsk. This port was under attack by the freedom fighters of Donetsk (rebels to our media) at the height of the last all out fighting and was close to be captured when the hastily arranged ceasefire came into being. Therefore there appears to be a few threads which the calling of martial law gathers together.
    1. Martial law removes the coming elections in which Poroshenko, with an 8% approval rating, looked fated to lose (mind you Julia Tymoshenko is no bed of roses either, nasty little fascist in her own right).
    2. Martial law increases the size of the Ukrainian armed forces and will enable the Azov battalions to increase their terror campaign in Donetsk. The Azov’s as has been well documented and photographed are chaps who have the swastika on their helmets and the double lightning flash of the old SS on their sleeves and by all accounts follow the methodology of the SS. Lovely folk.
    3. The ‘incident’ near the Kerch bridge appears to have been an orchestrated event by the Ukrainian government to manufacture both martial law as well as extra support for them from the west with maybe an eye to all out conflict or the resumption at least of the open hostilities against Donetsk and Luhansk.

    However, we in Australia, not having had an independent foreign policy for at least the last 50 years will of course side with the maniacs in the White House and NATO who would like nothing better than to have an excuse to attack Russia. So once again we risk following into someone else’s war for exactly no discernible advantage to us at all.

  3. Frank O'Connor says:

    Seem’s that Ukraine’s strategy is to draw the rest of the world into a war with Russia to support it’s own nationalist objectives.

    This has been pretty much a constant for the last few years – getting others to fight its war I mean. It has attempted to ally with Europe and the EEC, join a recklessly expanded NATO, and establish numerous other alliances and provocations with gay abandon.

    The thing one has to remember about Russia is that one in seven Russians died during World War II (the last time Russia’s borders were threatened and breached), pretty much every Russian family was affected by this … and this is not something they forget.

    For the Ukraine to enlist other nations to fight its war, for NATO to postulate moving its frontier with Russia right up to the Russian border, is something Russia is highly unlikely to tolerate …

    And, if history has proven anything, provoking the Russian bear like this is foolish in the extreme.

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